NEW: 128 police officers have been injured in clashes since Thursday, a spokesman says
A judges' group calls for a nationwide strike; another group opposes it
Council calls move an "unprecedented attack" on judicial independence
President Morsy says his actions are aimed at fostering "political and social stability"
Egypt’s highest judicial body joined protesters Saturday in lambasting the country’s president for issuing a decree disabling the courts and giving him unchecked power.
President Mohamed Morsy on Thursday announced that courts could not overturn any decree or law he has issued since taking office in June and, beyond that, in the six months until a new constitution is finalized, his spokesman said on state-run TV.
He also fired Egypt’s prosecutor general, who has been criticized for the insufficient prosecutions of those suspected in demonstrators’ deaths in 2011.
The Supreme Judicial Council, the highest judicial body in Egypt, weighed in Saturday, calling the decree an “unprecedented attack on the independence of the judicial branch,” state-run media reported.
“The Supreme Judicial Council, which is in charge of all matters related to the judiciary and the judges, expresses its dismay at the issuance of such a decree and is calling on the president of the republic to distance himself from all matters related to the judicial branch and its agencies,” state news agency MENA said.
The president’s decree sparked demonstrations in Egypt and widespread anger in the country at Morsy, who had been widely praised across the world for spearheading a cease-fire agreement in Gaza after eight days of fighting between Israel and Hamas.
According to state-run EGYNews, which cited the Health Ministry, 261 people have been injured in clashes in Cairo and elsewhere since Morsy made his announcement. Forty-three of those reportedly remain in hospitals. The report did not indicate whether those injured were Morsy supporters or opponents.
Interior Ministry spokesman Alaa Mahmoud said 128 police officers were injured in clashes nationwide.
Dozens of protesters, some throwing rocks, faced off in central Cairo on Saturday morning with police, who fired tear gas canisters at them. The gas drifted through streets near a more thinly populated Tahrir Square, where just a day before thousands of protesters called for the overthrow of the regime.
Egyptian state TV reported clashes outside the judicial building in Cairo between opponents and supporters of the government. Clashes continued into the evening between protesters and security forces, with police firing tear gas and warning shots in the air near the Interior Minsitry.
Ministry spokesman Mahmoud said hundreds of Morsy supporters and members of the Muslim Brotherhood attempted to storm the building, but riot police stopped them.
The protesters congregated at the entrance of the judicial building. That’s where the leadership of the Egypt Judges Club, an association of judges from across the country, was meeting with former Prosecutor General Abdel-Meguid Mahmoud.
The judges and Mahmoud vehemently oppose Morsy’s actions.
“The people want to execute the prosecutor general,” the pro-Morsy protesters chanted outside the building.
The general assembly of the judges’ club has called for a nationwide strike in all courts and prosecution offices to protest the president’s move, state-run Nile TV reported.
Judges in Alexandria and Damanhour say they are putting all court hearings on hold until further notice.
Yet other judges offered support for Morsy. The Judges for Egypt movement, a nongovernmental organization made up of judges, denounced any call for a strike, according to state TV.
Morsy’s supporters plan to assert their clout throughout the week. The Muslim Brotherhood, the movement Morsy once led, will stage nationwide demonstrations starting Sunday to back the president’s decrees and plans. It also announced a “Million Man” demonstration Tuesday at Abdeen Square in Cairo in support of Morsy’s decisions.
Nearly two years after popular unrest spurred former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s fall, throngs have taken to Egypt’s streets in past days to call for revolution again, this time for the ouster of his successor.
Tents dot Cairo’s Tahrir Square, just as they did during the 2011 uprising, and clashes between protesters and police were reported Friday in the capital, the port city of Alexandria and elsewhere around the North African nation. Opposition leaders say they are firm in their resolve and, in Cairo’s landmark square at least, scores could be seen milling about overnight.
In a country already without a parliament, Morsy’s announcement means he seems to have total executive, legislative and now judicial authority, all as a new constitution is being written.
“It’s unprecedented, it’s unimaginable, it’s more (power) than Mr. Mubarak ever had,” Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel laureate and head of Egypt’s Constitution Party, told CNN. “This is the language of a dictator.”
ElBaradei, a one-time head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, urged “civil disobedience.”
“Endorsing the position of ElBaradei, (former Arab League chief) Amr Moussa and others, I urge all who voted for me to stand with us against the tyranny of the regime,” wrote Ahmed Shafik, a former prime minister who received 48% of the vote in this year’s presidential run-off, on Twitter.
Despite such opposition, Morsy was defiant and insistent Friday that his actions are in the interests of the Egyptian people.
“I have dedicated myself and my life for democracy and freedom,” he told hundreds of supporters outside the presidential palace in Cairo. “The steps I took are meant to achieve political and social stability.”
The chair of Egypt’s Cabinet, Mohamed Refaa al-Tahtawi, brushed back criticisms that Morsy had made an undemocratic power grab, saying the opposite is true and that Morsy “is not really trying to monopolize power.”
“He is trying to have strong pillars for a steady progress toward democracy,” al-Tahtawi said. “A dictator would not try to have an elected parliament as soon as possible.”
The Cabinet chief added, “I assure you that in the coming days, the opposition will fade away and calm down.”
But that sentiment was not shared by everyone.
Tensions were brewing days before the president’s moves; protesters have been in Tahrir Square since Monday.
The anger has been directed at Morsy and the Islamist movement of which he is a member. The Muslim Brotherhood was banned under Mubarak but has since risen exponentially in stature. There has also been growing turmoil about the constitutional panel, pitting conservatives who want Egypt to be governed by Islam’s Sharia law against moderates and liberals pushing for it to ensure basic freedoms, including for women.
On Friday in Tahrir Square, thousands had Morsy in mind as they chanted, “Leave, leave,” and “The people want to topple the regime,” the signature phrase of the Arab Spring uprisings, cried out from Tunisia to Egypt and Syria.
Nearby, in front of Egypt’s parliament building, thousands of protesters threw rocks as police used their vehicles and tear gas to keep the crowd contained.
A Cairo doctor said Saturday that a day earlier he treated five patients who had been wounded by shot pellets. But most of the injuries Dr. Mahmoud Said handled at Mounira Hospital were cuts resulting from hurled stones.
The top floor of an eight-story apartment building caught on fire Friday night, a blaze protesters blamed on a police tear gas canister tossed at demonstrators who were on top of the building earlier in the day.
About 215 kilometers (130 miles) north in Alexandria, protesters on Friday stormed the headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing and set it on fire, said Ahmed Sobea, a spokesman for the Freedom and Justice Party.
Calling for calm and dialogue, the U.S. State Department expressed concern Friday about the developments, saying, “One of the aspirations of the revolution was to ensure that power would not be overly concentrated in the hands of any one person or institution.”
Thus far, authorities have arrested 210 protesters, 85 of whom are charged with destroying public property, thuggery and attacking security forces, the Interior Ministry said, according to state TV. Some 44 of those arrested are juveniles who are now back with their families.
“My worry … is that the while situation will turn ugly, will turn violent if Morsy doesn’t rescind (his) decisions (and) engage in dialogue with the rest of the country,” ElBaradei said, adding he had met with Morsy a week ago and felt blindsided by his moves.
CNN’s Yousuf Basil, Hamdi Alkhshali, Jason Hanna and Mitra Mobasherat and journalist Ian Lee contributed to this report.