Morsi meets judges to calm power fears

Cross posted from The National.

CAIRO // The Egyptian president, Mohammed Morsi, yesterday tried to calm tensions that have gripped the country since his seizure of new powers.

Mr Morsi met with members of Egypt’s Supreme Judicial Council, which on Sunday condemned the declaration as an “unprecedented assault on the judiciary and it rulings”. Mr Morsi’s advisers expressed confidence that yesterday’s talks would resolve the impasse.

A presidential spokesman, Yasser Ali, said that Mr Morsi assured the judges that the decrees did not in any way “infringe” on the judiciary.

Mr Morsi’s justice minister, Ahmed Mekki, said a resolution to the crisis was imminent.

Mr Mekki said that Mr Morsi’s declaration could be amended to stipulate that “the irrevocable decisions of the president apply only to issues related to his sovereign powers and not administrative decisions”. Mr Morsi’s declaration on Thursday gave him nearly absolute political power until a new constitution is approved.

Mr Morsi defended the unilateral act as essential to realising a full democratic transition that they claim has been stalled by a politicised judiciary dominated by appointees during Hosni Mubarak’s time as president.

The judiciary responded vigorously at the weekend.

In addition to the Supreme Judicial Council’s rebuke, Egypt’s Judges Club appealed for a general strike by judges and prosecutors, although the judicial council rejected those calls, and they do not appear to have been widely followed.

Mr Morsi’s declaration has also sparked a series of violent outbreaks throughout the country. Anti-Muslim Brotherhood demonstrators torched several of the organisation’s offices on Friday. On Sunday evening, a 15-year-old Brotherhood member, Islam Masoud, was killed after protesters attempted to storm the group’s headquarters in the Nile Delta city of Damanhur.

The instability rocked the stock exchange, which plunged more than 9 per cent on Sunday. Stocks rebounded slightly in yesterday’s trading.

On Sunday, Mr Morsi emphasised the “temporary nature of the said measure”.

Egyptian judges resist Morsi ‘assault’

Cross posted from The National.

CAIRO // Egypt’s top judges yesterday accused the country’s president, Mohammed Morsi, of promoting an “unprecedented assault” on an independent judiciary.

On Thursday, Mr Morsi granted himself nearly absolute power in the country, including over the courts, in what he said was an effort to speed progress and to protect the transition to constitutional democracy. After an emergency meeting, the Supreme Judicial Council, the highest court in the country, said in a statement released by Egypt’s official news agency, Mena, that Mr Morsi’s decision was an “unprecedented assault on the judiciary and it rulings”.

The court called on the president to “distance himself from the declaration and all things that touch judicial authority, its specifications or interference in its members or its rulings”. Hundreds protested outside a downtown courthouse against Mr Morsi while awaiting the court’s statement.

The judges join a widening list of leaders and activists from Egypt’s political factions, including some Islamists, who have denounced the decree.

Mr Morsi’s order temporarily strips the courts of oversight of the president and the Islamist-dominated assembly drafting a new constitution. It also removes from office the country’s prosecutor-general, a holdover from the former president Hosni Mubarak era, whom Mr Morsi unsuccessfully tried to fire last month.

The president’s opponents see the judiciary as the only remaining civilian branch of government with a degree of independence, because Mr Morsi already holds executive power and as well as legislative authority due to the dissolution of parliament in June.

Since assuming office in June, Mr Morsi, a former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the country’s first freely elected president, has repeatedly butted heads with the judiciary, which is dominated by Mubarak-era appointees and viewed by Mr Morsi’s supporters as an obstacle to his political agenda.

The edicts Morsi issued mean that no judicial body can dissolve the upper house of parliament or the current assembly writing the new constitution, which are also both led by members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Supporters of Morsi feared that courts reviewing cases against these bodies might have dissolved them, further postponing Egypt’s transition under the aegis of a new constitution. Mena also reported that judges in Alexandria, Egypt’s second largest city, announced they would strike in protest of Mr Morsi’s declaration.

In Cairo, sporadic clashes between young protesters and police around Tahrir Square continued for a sixth consecutive day. The relatively low-grade clashes on Mohamd Mahmoud Street followed a night of some of the most intense violence of the last week between rock-throwing protesters and police, who unleashed a torrent of tear gas and birdshot on the protesters.

Mohamed Kamel, a doctor at a field hospital set up inside the square, said that he had treated 45 injuries the previous night, including one serious chest wound from a rock thrown by police.

On the muddied centre lawn inside the square, hundreds of demonstrators had heeded calls from at least 15 different opposition groups to participate in a sit-in against Mr Morsi’s declaration. About two dozen tents had gone up overnight, many marked with the insignia of liberal and secular political parties and activist groups.

Tamin Heikel, 35, a member of the El Adl Party, vowed to remain in the square until Mr Morsi repealed his decree.

“Of course [Morsi] will respond to the pressure, but not right away,” he said. “We will have to stay for a long time and escalate our activities.”

Ahmed Mohamed Mahmoud, a 37-year-old civil engineer, went even further, saying he was prepared to “stay here until Morsi falls off his chair,” adding, “a country without laws is not a country”.

Like many of the other protesters, Mr Mahmoud said he had voted for Mr Morsi in the presidential election this year and that he had never participated in political activism before. But he said that Mr Morsi’s most recent action convinced him that the president’s pledges were all lies and that he had instead led the country to a dangerous precipice.

“Civil war is coming very soon,” he insisted, pointing to the violence on Friday between Muslim Brotherhood and non-Muslim Brotherhood demonstrators in cities across Egypt, “because we have Egyptians fighting Egyptians”.

He was unimpressed by Mr Morsi’s speech on Friday, in which he justified his actions as essential to preserving the gains of last year’s revolution.

“It didn’t convince anyone older than 12,” Mr Mahmoud quipped.

Morsi’s decree sparks protests across Egypt

Cross posted from The National.

Protesters run from riot police during clashes at Tahrir square in Cairo on Friday.

Protesters run from riot police during clashes at Tahrir square in Cairo on Friday. Mohamed Abd El Ghany / Reuters

CAIRO // Thousands of Egyptians rallied against the president, Mohammed Morsi, and torched Muslim Brotherhood offices across the country yesterday in a show of anger at the sweeping powers he has decreed for himself.

Supporters and opponents clashed across the country in violence that left 100 people injured.

But in an address to thousands of his supporters outside the presidential palace, Mr Morsi insisted he was steering Egypt towards “political stability, social stability and economic stability”.

“All the revolution might be in danger by those still loyal to the old regime,” he told them. “If I see my country and Egyptians are in danger, I will act.”

Mr Morsi lashed out at protesters on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, just off Tahrir, where violent confrontations between anti-government youth and police raged for a fifth consecutive day. He described them as “paid thugs”.

Liberal and secular groups massed in Tahrir Square and across the country to protest against decrees giving Mr Morsi power to operate without judicial oversight and insulate the Islamist-dominated constitutional assembly from legal challenges.

In Cairo, thousands of young men threw rocks and the occasional Molotov cocktail at police positioned behind the walls of a local private school and inside residential buildings. They responded with tear gas and birdshot.

The Egyptian health ministry reported 16 people hurt, and the official Mena news agency reported eight policemen were seriously injured by Molotov cocktails.

A banner hung above the entrance to the street from the square declaring: “No entry to the Brotherhood.”

The offices of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the Brotherhood’s political arm, were also burnt in the cities of Alexandria, Ismailiya and Port Said, according to state television, as the protests spread across the country.

Egypt’s divided opposition, which heeded calls from the country’s Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, and former presidential candidates Hamdeen Sabbahi and Amr Moussa, for a protest after Friday prayers.

The 6th of April Youth Movement, which played a central role in the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak last year, had a visible presence in Tahrir.

One member, Ahmed Mohamed, wearing the group’s trademark black headband, said Mr Morsi’s new powers reflected Egypt’s transformation into “the Muslim Brotherhood’s country”.

Many others said they had formerly supported, or at least tolerated, Mr Morsi’s presidency but had grown alarmed by what they called his dictatorial tendencies.

Amr Tolba, 40, a salesman, said he had voted for Mr Morsi in the June presidential run-off and this was his first political demonstration since the revolution.

“Today for the first time, you will see people like me,” Mr Tolba said.

“I was concentrating on my job, my profession. But now I am here to protest a dictator that is coming up.”

Mr Morsi’s backers, led by the Brotherhood, gathered outside the presidential palace in a show of support for his decrees. “The people support the president’s decisions,” the crowd chanted.

A branch office of the FJP was set on fire in Alexandria and protesters were heading to the group’s main office in the Mediterranean city’s Sidi Gaber neighbourhood, security officials said. “The situation in Alexandria is tense and security forces are eager to exercise self-restraint and maintain security and protect vital establishments,” said Gen Abdelmawgud Lutfi, the head of Alexandria security.

In the southern city of Assiut, ultraconservative Salafis outnumbered liberal and leftists, such as the April 6 youth groups. The two sides exchanged insults and briefly scuffled.

Hundreds also took to the streets of the Red Sea resort city of Sharm El Sheikh against Mr Morsi’s declaration, chanting: “No to merging the revolution with authoritarianism.”

WWE gets a grip of fans in Egypt

Cross posted from The National.

HOLD FOR FOREIGNEntering the ring. Wrestlers from the WWE enter the ring and begin to show off their personas before the opening match of Thursday nights WWE World Tour in Cairo Egypt.Keith Lane

Keith Lane for The National

CAIRO // Girgis Abu Habib Sidrak says he watches professional wrestling 10 hours a day but would watch “all 24 hours” if he could.

Every night, without fail, body slams and chokeholds light up the TV at this elegant rooftop Cairo bar.

It is 9.30 on a Sunday evening and in between taking drink and shisha orders, Mr Sidrak and his co-worker, George Milad Abib, are flipping through the five different channels all broadcasting World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) fights.

On one is an old bout featuring Dave Batista and his partner in crime, Rey Mysterio. “Look, look,” Mr Sidrak repeatedly interjects, jabbing his index finger towards the screen. At one point, Batista flattens his opponent by launching himself feet-first into his chest.

Mr Sidrak, 21, and Mr Abib, 20, explain that they have been tuning into professional wrestling for more than a decade.

They watch the fights and WWE-produced films. Mr Abib is a member of a WWE Facebook group. Sometimes they practise the moves they see on each other.

Their obsession with a quintessentially American entertainment genre, often derided as gratuitously violent and misogynistic, is anything but an oddity here.

Professional wrestling is everywhere in Egypt – from televisions in dingy Cairo cafes and Bedouin huts in the desert, to merchandise hawked on the streets, to online message boards.

WWE made its live debut in Cairo last month with three performances. More than two hours before the 8pm start on Friday, thousands of fans streamed into the arena inside the Cairo Stadium complex, many with homemade signs bearing their favourite wrestlers’ likenesses.

WWE, which rakes in almost US$500 million (Dh1.84 billion) a year and broadcasts in 145 countries to more than 600 million households, has found the Middle East a fertile frontier.

It launched an Arabic site, WWE Arabia, six months ago, and has held live events in Qatar and Abu Dhabi in the past 18 months.

Ed Wells, the senior vice president and managing director for WWE International, declined to provide exact television viewership or revenue figures for the region, but touted the inroads WWE has made lately.

“WWE’s programming in the Middle East, and Egypt in particular, has very strong audience figures and we have seen steady growth of the popularity of the brand in these markets in the past 12 months,” he said. Its Cairo Facebook page is one of WWE’s most popular internationally.

By the time the first wrestlers pranced into the ring to blaring music and flashing lights, the crowd had stirred itself into a frenzy. The vast arena was only about a third full, owing no doubt to the high ticket prices, which ranged from about 250 Egyptian pounds (Dh150) in the nosebleed seats to 3,000 Egyptian pounds ringside.

Yet the noise was almost deafening, as alternating spells of cheering and derision rained down on the performers below, the throngs of young fans in attendance lending the cries a distinctly high pitch.

While professional wrestling strikes many in Egypt as a crude western import, the WWE’s styling of itself as wholesome entertainment rang true among the parents with small children in tow.

Ahmed Hussein sat in the upper deck with his wife Radwa Gadou, 8-year-old daughter Malad, and 6-year-old son Mazen. He said his children have been watching WWE since they were 2 or 3.

“They first got into it on PlayStation,” he said. “They would know every player, every movement.”

The expensive tickets were too much for many devotees, such as Mr Sidrak and Mr Abib, but the crowd was well-versed in the ways of WWE. They cheered on the heroes and taunted the villains with chants while responding on cue to the wrestlers’ patented gestures.

Menna Mohamed, 13, who was joined in the stands by at least five members of her extended family, showed off the signs she had made, including one with a caricaturised rendering of Dolph Ziggler alongside his catchphrase, “It’s not showing off if you back it up.”

Menna said she has been watching WWE for years. She used to stay up until 3am to catch airings of Monday Night Raw. She explained that she loves Ted DiBiase, but not so much Zac Ryder, whose biography she dismissively rattled off while anxiously inquiring if anyone knew who was up in the ring next.

“The programming and storylines are based on the age old story of good versus evil, which is a narrative everyone can relate to globally,” said Mr Wells, trying to explain the WWE’s diverse appeal.

“In addition to that, the product is family friendly – and is presented in a fun and engaging way.”

For many young men here, who comprise much of the core audience, professional wrestling seems to offer something else: a rare image of pure masculinity. Mr Sidrak says he wishes he could go to the gym to get ripped like the fighters he idolises.

“Of course,” he replies, when asked if he would like to be a professional wrestler. “That is my dream.”

Unfortunately, with his scrawny frame, Mr Sidrak cuts an unlikely candidate to become Egypt’s first professional wrestling superstar.

Ahmed Hussein offered one more explanation for WWE’s allure. “I think Egyptians like to do things that the American and Europeans, and the developed world in general, do.”

It is not quite the image the US is looking to export. In March of last year, Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, lamented that America was losing the information war in the Muslim world.

She recounted a meeting with an Afghan general to the Senate foreign relations committee. “The only thing he thought about Americans was that all the men wrestled and the women walked around in bikinis.”

Egypt’s new Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi, who has publicly expressed his disdain for “naked restaurants” in the US, is unlikely to be a big fan of WWE and its scantily-clad “divas”.

Still, at least one online enthusiast was prepared to give Mr Morsi the credit for the last month’s spectacle. “Anything is possible in the age of President Morsi” a commenter wrote on the WWE Arabia website.