Egypt’s Islamist President Mohammed Mursi was to meet with senior judges on Monday in a bid to defuse a crisis that erupted after he assumed sweeping new powers, sparking strikes and deadly protests.
The crisis talks, on the eve of rival rallies which threaten to deepen the country’s divisions, come a day after a member of his party was killed in clashes outside its offices in the Nile Delta town of Damanhour.
Several offices belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) have been torched since Morsi’s announcement on Thursday of his enhanced powers.
The constitutional declaration which allows him to issue decisions and laws unchallenged on a temporary basis has triggered a wave of protests across the country, and set him on course for a showdown with Egypt’s judges.
Courts in some provinces have suspended work in protest while the journalists’ union has decided in principle to go on strike and a sit-in by opponents of Morsi is being held in the iconic Tahrir Square at the heart of last’s year revolution.
Small groups of protesters spent Sunday night in the square, where they have erected 30 tents since Friday. “Muslim Brotherhood, keep out,” reads a banner strung up nearby.
The constitutional declaration states that Morsi can issue “any decision or measure to protect the revolution,” which are final and not subject to appeal, sparking charges that he is taking on dictatorial powers.
In a move to assuage his critics, Morsi was to meet the Supreme Judicial Council late in the afternoon after his Justice Minister Ahmed Mekki held preliminary talks with the council, the president’s spokesman Yasser Ali said.
Ahead of the crisis talks, key opposition figure Mohamed ElBaradei ruled out any compromise with “a president who is imposing a dictatorship,” but Mekki said that curbs on the widened presidential powers could be discussed with the judges.
An amendment could be added to specify that “the irrevocable decisions of the president apply only to issues related to his sovereign powers and not administrative decisions,” the minister said, quoted by state news agency MENA.
On Sunday, Morsi stressed the “temporary nature” of the measures, valid only until a new constitution is adopted and elections held, and which “are not meant to concentrate power” but devolve it to a democratically-elected parliament.
The measures were also “deemed necessary in order to hold accountable those responsible for the corruption as well as the other crimes during the previous regime and during the transitional period.”
Long-time president Hosni Mubarak was sentenced to life, along with his interior minister, over the killing of protesters in the uprising last year that eventually ousted him, in which some 850 activists died.
Six security chiefs were acquitted in the same case, sparking nationwide outrage.
New investigations have been ordered into the deaths, and Egypt’s new prosecutor general Talaat Ibrahim Abdallah said “revolutionary courts” would be set up.
The presidency also on Sunday stressed its commitment to engaging all political forces in dialogue “to reach a national consensus on the constitution, which will be the cornerstone of Egyptian modern institutions.”
But ElBaradei, a former UN nuclear watchdog chief, and ex-presidential candidates Hamdeen Sabbahi, Amr Mussa and Abdelmoneim Abul Futuh said on Saturday that they would have no dialogue with Morsi until he rescinded his decree.
The Muslim Brotherhood has called a “million man” demonstration on Tuesday in Giza district near Cairo University, to coincide with a huge demonstration planned by Morsi opponents for Tahrir Square on the opposite side of the Nile river.
The FJP says Morsi’s decree was necessary to prevent the courts from disbanding the Islamist-dominated panel drawing up the new constitution. The judges have slammed what they termed “an unprecedented attack on the independence of the judiciary.”