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Middle East

Burst Of Protest In Egypt But No Revolution, Yet

Cairo's Tahrir Square was nearly empty as the sun rose Saturday. A few demonstrators camped out overnight after mass protests on Friday condemned controversial decrees by Egypt's President Mohammed Morsi.

Earlier this week, Morsi gave himself unchecked powers until a constitution is written and passed by a popular referendum — in about two months. He also decreed that neither the body writing the constitution nor the upper house of Parliament could be dissolved by the courts.

That set off angry demonstrations. On a side street just off Tahrir Square, clashes continued between young, scrappy men who hate the police and tear-gas-throwing cops. In the square — the birthplace of last year's uprising against former President Hosni Mubarak — people pitched some 20 tents for an open sit-in against the Islamist president's actions.

But on Saturday morning, Tahrir Square looked more like a disheveled camping site than the start of an uprising against the president. There were little more than 100 people in the square. Nearby, more than 30 soldiers guarded the Supreme Court as the general prosecutor started his first day on the job. Among the president's decrees was the replacement of the old general prosecutor, seen as a corrupt Mubarak-era figure.

Judges across Egypt condemned the president's actions as an "unprecedented attack" on the judiciary. Lawyers filed a suit demanding the nullification of Morsi's decrees.

Morsi's decision to neutralize the judiciary brought into sharp focus just how politically polarized this nation-in-transition is. But there are few signs that the country is in the throes of a new revolution.

Power Grab Or Protecting Democracy?

"At the end of the day, the numbers were not as decisive as we would have expected," says Yasser El-Shimy, an Egypt analyst at the International Crisis Group. "The potential for this to continue and escalate, I would say, is that it is possible, but it's not exactly overwhelming."

Shimy says that while he understands critics who see Morsi's move as a power grab to make himself an unchecked leader, the reality is much more nuanced.

Morsi hails from the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's most historic Islamist organization. The Supreme Constitutional Court is made up entirely of Mubarak-era judges. That court dissolved the lower house of the elected Parliament earlier this year, which was dominated by the Brotherhood. The court then dissolved the first assembly tasked with writing the constitution, which was also dominated by Islamists. Another case that had been scheduled for the court on Dec. 2 would have given the court the opportunity to disband the new assembly that is writing Egypt's constitution.

Morsi "did what he did, in a way, to secure all elected — or popularly elected and democratically elected — institutions in Egypt against the potential of them being completely dissolved by the Mubarak-appointed institutions," Shimy says. But others don't see it that way.

'A Huge Crisis'

"It is a disastrous decree," says Egyptian judge Yussef Auf, "because it included seven main points — at least five points of them is like fighting or undermining or controlling or limiting the authority of the judicial power in Egypt, and that's a huge crisis, actually."

Auf blames bickering political forces. When Islamists won much of the Parliament and dominated the constituent assembly, secular politicians filed complaints with the courts, and by doing so, dragged them into the political fight. Auf says this effectively politicized the courts in a nation now polarized along Islamist versus secular lines.

For human rights workers, the biggest concern is the decree that makes any decision issued by the president above the law, from now until a constitution is passed. They are also wary of a catch-all phrase that allows the president any power he deems necessary to protect the revolution. That could mean anything, says Heba Morayef, the Egypt director for Human Rights Watch.

"What Morsi and the Brotherhood don't realize is that this is a fundamentally undemocratic move to have made," she says, "that it threatens the rule of law, it threatens the role of the judiciary. It threatens the checks and balances."

For now, Morsi's answer to those concerns seems to be, "Trust me."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Egypt's judiciary appears to be mobilizing today against a controversial set of presidential decrees designed to give President Mohammed Morsi temporary unchecked power with no judicial oversight. Egypt's highest court called it an unprecedented attack, and a number of judges signaled they intend to strike in protest.

But after mass demonstrations yesterday, Cairo's Tahrir Square was nearly empty as the sun rose today and calls for revolution appear to be unanswered. NPR's Leila Fadel sent this report.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORN)

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: On a side street just off Tahrir Square, clashes continued for the fifth straight day between young scrappy men who hate the police and tear-gas throwing cops.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD)

FADEL: Inside the square, the birthplace of last year's uprising against former president Hosni Mubarak, people had pitched some 20 tents for an open sit-in against the Islamist president after he granted himself unchecked powers until a constitution is written and passed by a popular referendum in about two months. He also declared that a body writing the constitution could not be dissolved by the courts, nor can the upper house of parliament.

It looked more like a disheveled camping site then the start of a new revolution against the president, who hails from The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's most historic Islamist organization. There were just over 100 people in the square.

Nearby, More than 30 soldiers guarded the Supreme Court as the new general prosecutor started his first day on the job. Among the president's decrees was the replacement of the old general prosecutor, seen as a corrupt Mubarak-era figure. He also ordered the retrial of Mubarak and his top aides. That decision was met with wild support among Egyptians looking for justice for the more than 1,000 people who were killed during last year's revolt.

When Morsi's pronouncements hit the airwaves this week, they were met with international and domestic outcries. Secular and liberal political leaders called him a dictator, human rights groups bristled and demonstrators flooded into the streets across the country, some in support and some against the president, in a country divided and in transition. But today there are few signs that Egypt is in the throes of a new revolution.

YASSER EL-SHIMY: At the end of the day, the numbers were not as decisive as we would have expected, and, the potential for this to continue and escalate is possible, but it's not exactly overwhelming.

FADEL: That's Yasser El-Shimy, an Egypt analyst at the International Crisis Group. He says that while he understands critics who see Morsi's move as a power grab to make himself an unchecked leader, the reality is much more nuanced. The Supreme Constitutional Court is made up entirely of Mubarak-era judges. The court dissolved the lower house of the elected parliament, which was dominated by The Muslim Brotherhood.

It then dissolved the first assembly tasked with writing the constitution, also dominated by Islamists. And a case that had been scheduled for the court on December 2nd could have disbanded the new assembly that is writing Egypt's constitution. El-Shimy says it also could have given legislative power back to the military council, which wrested control after Egypt's revolution before Morsi forced the leadership out.

EL-SHIMY: He did what he did, in a way, to secure all elected - or popularly elected and democratically elected institutions in Egypt against the potential of them being completely dissolved by the Mubarak-appointed institutions.

FADEL: But others don't see it that way. Egyptian judge Yussef Auf.

YUSSEF AUF: It is a disastrous decree. Because it included seven main points, at least five points of them is like fighting or undermining or controlling or limiting the authority of the judicial power in Egypt, and that's a huge crisis actually.

FADEL: Judge Auf says he blames the bickering political forces. When Islamists won much of the parliament and dominated the constituent assembly, secular politicians filed complaints with the courts and by doing so dragged them into the political fight. This, in effect, politicized the courts in a nation now polarized on Islamist verses secular lines, he says.

For human rights workers the biggest concern is a decree that makes any decision issued by the president from now until a constitution is passed unchallengeable, as well as a catch-all phrase that allows the president any power he deems necessary to protect the revolution. That could mean anything says Heba Morayef, the Egypt director for Human Rights Watch.

HEBA MORAYEF: What Morsi and the Brotherhood don't realize is that this is a fundamentally undemocratic move to have made, that it threatens the checks and balances.

FADEL: Morsi's answers to those concerns? Trust me.

Leila Fadel, NPR News, Cairo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.