Morsi's decree upheld as presidential spokesman softens stance, protests continue

A new decree by Egypt's president, Mohammed Morsi, has observers worried he may become the new "Pharaoh," setting back democratic gains.

Egypt's President Mohamed Morsi's controversial decree, which vastly expands his powers, will be upheld.

The decree, issued Thursday night, was met with outrage by Egypt's political opposition, which called Morsi's move an "attack on democracy" and a "threat to judicial independence." It also led to demonstrations of tens of thousands on Friday in Cairo and other Egyptian cities.

On Tuesday, angry protests in Cairo continued, with thousands rallying in Tahrir Square. From Cairo, GlobalPost's Erin Cunningham wrote that the marches and demonstrations are "the largest I've seen in months and definitely worth noting both for the high numbers and high energy."

"But it's true that the current clashes with police in the vicinity of Tahrir started before Morsi issued his decree, and that is currently causing the political turmoil," she added. "Despite being Egypt's first elected, civilian president, Mohamed Morsi is not immune from the boisterous street protests that have characterized Egyptan politics since the 2011 revolution."

Presidential spokesman Yasser Ali said late on Monday that Morsi's decree would not be subject to modification and that it may have been "misunderstood" by the public, reported Ahram Online.

"The decree will only immunize the president's sovereign decisions [from legal challenges]," Ali said in a statement after Morsi met with senior jurists, reported UPI. He also said the decree was temporary and stressed Morsi's respect for Egypt's judicial institutions and their independence.

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Ali went on to clarify the article in the decree calling for the retrial of police and Mubarak-era officials implicated in killing protesters, Ahram noted. He said the article would only apply "in cases in which new evidence has emerged."

The New York Times characterized this as backtracking from the harshness of Morsi's original statement, although the president's office maintains that the wording of the decree has not changed.

"Morsi did not rescind the original decree ... and it's not clear whether or not his 'explanation' will be enough to defuse the tension in Cairo," Foreign Policy wrote.

The escalation of protests in Cairo on Tuesday didn't seem to indicate that Morsi's comments have had any effect toward appeasing protesters.

"But still, it's important to note that the demonstrations in Tahrir might not actually translate into a solid political opposition, nor will they definitely force Morsi to concede," GlobalPost's Cunnigham commented.

"There are a lot of protesters comparing Tahrir's numbers and spirit today to the 18 days that saw unprecedented street protests and the eventual ouster of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. But the reason Tahrir worked during the revolution is that, simply, the protesters weren't supposed to be there," she added. "Tahrir has seen dozens and dozens of protests since then, so it doesn't really mark a breakthrough for opposition to Morsi — just a show [of] numbers, really."

According to the Jerusalem Post, Morsi's decree states that presidential decisions will enjoy temporary immunity from legal challenge. It also protects Egypt's Islamist-led Constituent Assembly, which has the task of drafting a new constitution, and the Shura Council (the upper house of parliament) from dissolution by court order.

Erin Cunningham contributed reporting from Cairo.