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After Brokering Gaza Ceasefire, Egypt’s Morsi Reignites Protests with Decree Expanding Powers

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Protests continue in Cairo’s Tahrir Square after Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi issued a decree last week seizing wide-ranging powers and protections from judicial review or oversight. Morsi made the move one day after he helped secure a ceasefire ending Israel’s assault on Gaza. More than 500 people have been injured in clashes between police and protesters since the decree was issued. Morsi has tried to reassure his detractors that the measure giving him sweeping new powers is temporary and not intended to concentrate power in his hands. He proclaimed the decision just a day after he brokered a deal to end Israel’s assault on the Gaza Strip. We go to Cairo to speak with Democracy Now! correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show in Egypt, where protests are continuing following the presidential decree last Thursday which grants Mohamed Morsi wide-ranging powers and shields his decisions from judicial review. On Sunday, security forces fired tear gas at hundreds of protesters in and around Tahrir Square in Cairo. More than 500 people have been injured in clashes between police and protesters since the decree was issued. Morsi has tried to reassure his detractors that the measure giving him sweeping new powers is temporary and not intended to concentrate power in his hands. Addressing supporters on Sunday, he indicated it was in keeping within the revolution.

PRESIDENT MOHAMED MORSI: [translation] The revolution has passed but will not stop. The judiciary is a respected institution, along with its loyal members. But those who wish to hide within the institution, then I will be watching them.

AMY GOODMAN: Prominent opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei said Saturday there could be no dialogue with the president until he rescinds what he termed a, quote, “dictatorial decree,” saying it’s given Morsi the powers of a pharaoh.

MOHAMED ELBARADEI: Well, the core demand for now is to rescind the constitutional declaration, you know, but if people were to ask me or to ask us what our — you know, “What do you want?” I mean, we clearly want a new constituent assembly. We want, you know, to be able to get a proper democratic constitution that guarantees our rights, our freedoms, a proper balance of power. And we want a qualified government, a government of national salvation, to be able to get the country out of the mess we are in, particularly focusing on the economy and security.

AMY GOODMAN: Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi proclaimed the decision just a day after he brokered a deal to end Israel’s assault on Gaza that killed 170 Palestinians. Four Israeli civilians and two Israeli soldiers were killed in Palestinian rocket attacks. Earlier today, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who presided over the assault on Gaza, announced his resignation.

Well, to find out more about the latest in Egypt and the ceasefire in Gaza, we go to Cairo to speak with Democracy Now! correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous. He has just returned to Egypt from Gaza on Saturday.

Sharif, welcome to Democracy Now! Why don’t you begin where you are right now, in Cairo. You are—actually, where you’re standing is overlooking Tahrir Square. Explain what happened this past week.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Right. As you mention Tahrir Square behind me, there’s a sit-in that’s been continuing for the fourth day now since Friday. Morsi, as you mentioned, Amy, really dropped a bombshell on Thursday with this seven-point constitutional declaration that gives him sweeping and unchecked powers, and severely restricts the powers of the judiciary. Twenty-two human rights organizations based in Egypt signed a statement against this decree, saying that the president now possesses authorities beyond any president or monarch in the modern Egyptian history.

At its core, according to the decree, judges now no longer have the power to dissolve the constituent assembly, to dissolve the Shura Council, which is the upper house of parliament, although the constituent assembly is really at the core of this. Both bodies are dominated by members of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups. It also extends the work of the constituent assembly for two months. Next week, there was a court ruling that was before the Supreme Constitutional Court that could have disbanded the constituent assembly. This would have been the second constituent assembly to have been disbanded. And it was also facing disintegration, essentially, from within, with about a third of the members, non-Islamist members, of the assembly withdrawing in protest over the domination by the Brotherhood and Islamist sympathizers of the process and of the actual text itself. After Morsi’s declaration on Thursday, another six members withdrew from the constituent assembly. So, that was a key point. I think that Morsi was trying to prevent the breakdown of the constituent assembly that’s drafting the country’s new constitution and move it forward.

The decree also removes the public prosecutor, who is a Mubarak-era holdover, and replaces him with a new one, and it calls for the retrial of many members of the former regime accused of killing protesters, including the former president, Hosni Mubarak, himself.

What is most ominous and created the most outrage was this part of the decree that basically places the president’s decisions, all of his decisions since coming into office in July and going forward for a few months—they make the decisions final and beyond any kind of appeal whatsoever. We have to remember that Morsi had executive and legislative power before this decree. The only check on his power was the judiciary, and now he has placed himself beyond that, as well. There’s also a very ominous article in the decree that states that Morsi can make—or the president can make decisions or take any measures to protect the country and, quote-unquote, “protect the goals of the revolution.”

So this—this really sparked a lot of outrage across the political spectrum. As you mentioned, it sparked protests the very next day in Tahrir, massive protests here just behind me in the square. And there was also—Morsi spoke at the presidential palace, outside the presidential palace, to his supporters, mostly Muslim Brotherhood members, saying—insisting that the powers would only be temporary.

The protests were not limited to Cairo, however. They spread all across governorates in Egypt, in Alexandria, in the Nile Delta, and in Port Said on the Suez Canal. Muslim Brotherhood headquarters in these cities, in several cities, were attacked. A couple were firebombed and burned down. A young 15-year-old Muslim Brotherhood member was apparently killed on Sunday when a rock hit his head. So, this has really sparked a big unrest in Egypt, and protests are being called for, massive protests both for and against this decree, for and against Morsi, tomorrow.

Over two dozen political parties and movements are supporting protests here in Tahrir behind me. The Muslim Brotherhood had initially planned a protest not far from here in support, but fearing further clashes and violence, they have moved it to another part of Cairo across the Nile. And, of course, the judiciary itself felt very under attack by this decree. Thousands of judges met on Saturday and began calling for strikes. In many governorates across Egypt, the courts have shut down, effectively closing down the judicial system. However, Morsi is meeting just a couple of hours after this broadcast, as we’re going out right now, meeting with senior members of the Supreme Judicial Council to try and find a way out of this crisis. But we’re not sure, you know, what is to come. I think the next few days will be very pivotal in Egypt’s very turbulent transition.

AMY GOODMAN: Sharif, over 150 judges, lawyers and prosecutors gathered in Cairo Saturday, calling for a strike to condemn President Morsi’s move to sideline the judiciary. Abdul Majid Mahmoud, the Hosni Mubarak-era prosecutor general, was dismissed. This is what he said.

ABDUL MAJID MAHMOUD: [translated] All talk of the prosecutor general’s office ignoring these cases, that the prosecutor general’s office hid or corrupted all the evidence, I challenge those who say such words if they had actually read a single page from the investigations that took place.

I urge you to accept from me sincere gratitude over your stance in defending the independence and prestige of the judiciary, and not because you wish to defend the prosecutor general, because the prosecutor general is now gone, and all people eventually go. One of the greatest privileges from God for a prosecutor is to work as a prosecutor general, and I worked as a prosecutor general for more than six years and not less than that.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Abdul Majid Mahmoud, the Hosni Mubarak-era prosecutor general. Your response, Sharif? And how many of the judges are Mubarak-era?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: It’s difficult to say exactly how many, but Mubarak was in power for three decades and appointed many of them. There’s no question that there is corruption within the judiciary. And let me just say, the man you just heard, Abdul Majid Mahmoud, is a very disliked figure in Egypt. One of the first calls of the revolution following Mubarak’s ouster was the removal of this public prosecutor who, throughout the Mubarak era, prosecuted protesters and dissenters to Mubarak’s rule, while not prosecuting what was very clear cases of corruption and cronyism by senior members of the National Democratic Party, Mubarak’s party. So, you know, replacing him and getting rid of him was a revolutionary demand, but it is the way that Morsi is choosing to replace him, the way that, you know, within this decree, he has granted himself these sweeping powers.

And a very important thing to mention also was that these clashes that have been going on with the police have continued for a week now. They began before Morsi’s declaration. They began actually on the anniversary of what’s called the Mohamed Mahmoud clashes here, which the—which started last year, was a massive uprising on a street, Mohamed Mahmoud, which is just off of Tahrir Square, against the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Protesters clashed for several days with members of the security forces. Forty-five people were killed. Thousands were injured. And to date, not one security official or anyone has been held accountable for the killings of these protesters. So, many of members of the revolutionary youth protested on the anniversary last week. Those protests escalated into clashes with the police. We’ve seen the police act with exactly the same kind of impunity under Mohamed Morsi as they have acted under Mubarak and under the Supreme Council of Armed Forces—


SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: —excessive use of force, tear gas, birdshot. One protester was killed, and right now there’s actually a funeral. His funeral is being held behind me in Tahrir.

AMY GOODMAN: Sharif, Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, the past presidential candidate, has warned continued instability in Egypt could lead to a military or Islamist takeover. He was interviewed on Fox News by Chris Wallace Sunday.

CHRIS WALLACE: What are the chances, Senator, that we are headed for a new Islamist coup and a new Islamist state in Egypt?

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: I think it could be headed that way. It could also be headed into a—back to a military takeover, if—if things went in the wrong direction. You could also see a scenario where there’s continued chaos. I’ll never forget, Chris, after I was in Egypt, I met with the young people who made the revolution in the square, and a young woman said, “Senator McCain, it’s not the first election we worry about; it’s the second.” That’s what we have to worry about: a repeat of the Iranian experience in the ’70s.

So, look, but what should the United States of America do? They should be saying, “This is unacceptable.” We thank Mr. Morsi for his efforts in brokering a ceasefire, which, by the way, is incredibly fragile, but this is not acceptable. This is not what the United States of American taxpayers expect. And our dollars will be directly related to the progress towards democracy, which you promised the people of Egypt when you were—when your party and you were elected president.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Republican Senator John McCain on Fox, Sharif.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, it would have been great to hear Senator McCain have this concern for democracy and human rights during President Mubarak, when Senator McCain was in office and Mubarak was in office for decades, and there wasn’t a peep. So—but, you know, some of what he says is true. This is a cause for concern by many groups, and it sparked outrage by many groups.

I think Morsi—we have to remember, he was elected on a very, very thin mandate. He won a razor-thin margin, by 51 percent, with a coalition that was cobbled together mostly of people who were voting against his opponent, Ahmed Shafik, who was Mubarak’s last prime minister. It’s coming at a very divisive time, where increasing battles over the constituent assembly and the constitution and the role of religion in the state. And so, he was trying to—appears to be trying to take control of Egypt’s transition and force through the transition to get to a constitution, to get to parliamentary elections. But it doesn’t seem that he has the mandate to do it. And we can—it’s evidenced by these massive protests. And tomorrow is expected to be a very pivotal day.

AMY GOODMAN: Sharif, finally, before we break and then come back to you to talk about Gaza, where you’ve just returned from, hearing about the announcement of Morsi to consolidate power while you were in Gaza, the significance of his making this announcement in the midst of these negotiations that are taking place, even as we speak, in Cairo right now with world leaders, including Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state, going to see him in Cairo?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, I’m sure that Morsi and his advisers were talking about this for some time, but it did come on—when Morsi was enjoying widespread praise internationally and domestically for his handling of the crisis with Israel and Gaza, of Israel’s assault on Gaza. This perhaps may have emboldened him to take these steps and take these measures and grant himself these sweeping powers. But as evidenced by protests again, it doesn’t seem that he seems to have gotten away with it.

But, you know, Morsi did in Gaza—anyone—every Palestinian I spoke to showered him with praise over his stance towards Gaza, over sending the prime minister, Hisham Kandil, into Gaza in the midst of the bombing, helping to really change the tone around the crisis. And he was praised by the United States and by the Obama administration for being, you know, what they call a serious negotiator and being earnest in trying to achieve a ceasefire. So, he was riding a high on that, and—but he seems to have really deflated the bubble that he was enjoying.

AMY GOODMAN: Sharif Abdel Kouddous, we’re going to come back to you after break. Back in Cairo now, he was in Gaza. We’re going to talk about the ceasefire there. Stay with us.

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