Tahrir Square

Egyptian protesters clash with security forces near Tahrir square, in Cairo, Egypt, Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2012. Egyptian state television says the country’s highest appeal court has decided to suspend its work nationwide to protest the president’s decrees giving himself nearly absolute powers. (AP Photo/ Khalil Hamra)

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

CAIRO — Egypt’s highest appeal courts suspended their work Wednesday to protest presidential decrees that gave the country’s Islamist leader Mohammed Morsi nearly absolute powers, state television reported, deepening the turmoil roiling the country since the decrees were announced last week.

A widening dispute between the president and the nation’s judiciary is at the center of the uproar over a constitutional declaration placing Morsi above oversight of any kind, including by the courts. At least 200,000 protesters filled Cairo’s central Tahrir Square on Tuesday to denounce the decrees and call on the president to rescind them.

Judges with the high and lower courts of appeal decided that they will not return to work until Morsi rescinds his decrees, according to state TV. Many of the country’s courts already had stopped functioning due to individual strikes.

The high court of appeal is led by Mohammed Mumtaz Metwali, who also chairs the Supreme Judiciary Council, which oversees the nation’s court system. Members of the council met Morsi on Monday to discuss his decrees.

A statement issued later by the presidential palace strongly suggested that the president’s explanation of the decrees satisfied the council, but the panel has not publicly commented on the issue.

A statement by the judges of the high appeals court, known as the Court of Cassation, described Morsi’s decrees as an “unprecedented” assault on the judiciary and its principles that “defies belief.” It said the decision to stop work at all its circuits was also unprecedented but justified by the “magnitude” of the crisis.

In another show of defiance, the Supreme Constitutional Court, the nation’s highest, rejected charges made by Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood that it is working to bring down his government.

The political turmoil was triggered Thursday when Morsi issued a constitutional declaration that placed him above oversight of any kind, including by the courts, and extended similar protection to parliament’s lower chamber and a 100-member panel drafting a new constitution.

Morsi and his allies in the Muslim Brotherhood, which has emerged as the most powerful political movement since the revolution that ousted Hosni Mubarak nearly two years ago, have accused the judiciary of being dominated by Mubarak-era appointees who are trying to undermine the new leader.

The constitutional court ruled in June to dissolve parliament’s lower chamber, which is dominated by Islamists, and was due to rule Sunday on the legality of the lower chamber and a 100-member panel drafting a new constitution.

A ruling, regardless of which way it goes, would constitute a direct challenge to Morsi, who took office in June as Egypt’s first freely elected president but has enraged pro-democracy activists who claim he is acting too much like the authoritarian leader he replaced.

The court also denounced Morsi’s claim that it was part of a “conspiracy” against him.

“The allegation that the (June) ruling was reached in complicity with others to bring down elected state institutions and consequently the state’s collapse ... is incorrect and untrue,” the constitutional court said in a statement read by its deputy chairman, Maher Sami, in a televised news conference.

“But what is most saddening for the court’s judges came when the president of the republic joined, in a painful and cruel surprise, the continuing attacks against the constitutional court,” it said, alluding to comments made by Morsi on Friday in which he said the June ruling was leaked ahead of its official announcement.

A strike by the appeals courts and the rare criticism of the president in the Supreme Constitutional Court’s statement came a day after Egyptians poured into Tahrir Square — the epicenter of last year’s anti-Mubarak uprising — to protest Morsi’s decrees, which also gave him unlimited powers to “protect” the nation.

Clashes between some protesters and police continued Wednesday off Tahrir, near the U.S. Embassy.

The liberal opposition has said it would not enter a dialogue with the president about the country’s latest political crisis before Morsi rescinded his decrees. Activists planned another massive rally on Friday.

Egypt and Mexico elect new presidents, face uphill battles

Two countries have elected new presidents over the weekend: Egypt and Mexico.

For Egypt, it’s out with the old and in with the new. On the other hand, our southern neighbor is experiencing a blast from the past.

Starting with Egypt, Mohamed Morsi of the Freedom and Justice Party narrowly defeated his opponent Ahmed Shafik, former prime minister under Hosni Mubarak, with 51.7 percent of the vote.

Morsi represents a big change from the previous presidents of Egypt. The democratically elected, American-educated, Muslim Brother with no military background is a far cry from the military dictators of the past.

Maintaining Egypt’s democratic revolution in light of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces continued intervention in Egyptian politics will be a central struggle for Morsi, in addition to uniting the country’s liberals, Islamists and Christians.

Morsi was actually the FJP’s second choice for president and entered the race in April after the first candidate was disqualified.

During the race he was known for being a reserved and cautious candidate, but at his inauguration ceremony in Tahrir Square on Saturday, Morsi opened his jacket to show he wore no bulletproof vest.

His policies thus far include giving state workers a 15 percent bonus and increasing assistance to Egyptians in poverty. He has also pledged to appoint a Christian and a woman to the vice-president positions in the effort to downplay fears that he will put Egypt on the path to becoming an Islamic state.

Turning to Mexico, Enrique Pena Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party received 38 percent of the vote in Sunday's election, returning his party to the presidency after 12 years of defeat.

In second place came leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador with about 32 percent of the vote. Lopez Obrador has challenged the results of the election and claimed Pena Nieto violated campaign regulations and benefited from biased media coverage.

The PRI had been the ruling party in Mexico from 1929 to 2000 and was known for its authoritarian style and corrupt politicians.

Twelve years have brought much change to Mexico and the country is struggling with a major war against drug cartels and a weak economy.

Under the PRI, democracy was traded for security. Many Mexicans are hoping Pena Nieto can return PRI stability to the country without corruption and end to the war that has claimed around 50,000 lives.

Pena Nieto has promised to abandon the PRI’s old policy of cutting deals with the drug cartels, and instead has vowed to target the cartels with “well-aimed, precision strikes” and increase cooperation with the U.S.

"There is no return to the past," Pena Nieto said. "You have given our party a second chance and we will deliver results."

Nermeen Mounier and her daughter Malak Tousson display the Egyptian flag at a solidarity rally supporting the demonstrations in Egypt, Syria and the Middle East. Members of Austin’s Middle Eastern communities and demonstrators for Occupy Austin lined 11th St. South of the Capitol gates to protest the recent wave of violence in Egypt and Syria and show support for reform in the region.

Photo Credit: Tamir Kalifa | Daily Texan Staff

Cries of “Down, down Assad! Free, free Syria!” reverberated through the crowd as members of the Syrian and Egyptian communities in Austin led approximately 60 people in a rally at the Texas Capitol to raise awareness and show support for protesters in the two nations Tuesday night.

The rally was held in response to a crackdown on demonstrators in Tahrir Square in Egypt and ongoing abuses by the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, public affairs graduate student Nahed Abdelrah said.

“During the last week, about 25 people in Egypt were killed and 2,500 were injured,” Abdelrah said. “Many of them lost eyes because the police used guns and intentionally directed it at their faces. To ruin the life of an activist for speaking their opinion is horrific.”

Abdelrah said she hoped the rally would send a message that oppression is not acceptable.

“The message we want to convey is that everyone has the right to live in a free country where you don’t live in fear of persecution because you speak out or offer a different point of view,” Abdelrah said.

Abdelrah befriended Mouna Hashem Akil, a member of the small Austin Syrian community earlier this year at a rally to support movement toward democracy in the Middle East during the Arab Spring, Akil said. Akil said in 41 years of the Assad family’s regime, the dictatorship has prevented adequate coverage of brutality to reach foreign shores.

“Every once in a while we get five minutes on the news, but a lot of people simply don’t know how horrific and how brutal Assad is,” Akil said. “We have one of the most oppressive governments on the planet.”

Akil said she hopes people will contact their congressional representatives, ambassadors and other leaders to let it be known that the Assad regime must go.

Egyptian native Dina Guirguis, 30, was at the rally and told the story of a young protester in Tahrir Square who had written down his telephone number on his hand during the protest, so his mother could identify his body in case he died while protesting.

“That’s the spirit of the Egyptian people,” Guirguis said.

“They know they are going to die, and they still are willing to go anyway.”

As protesters chanted “from Austin to Cairo, oppressive regimes have got to go,” Guirguis said the voices gathered in Texas had already reverberated around the globe.

“I started tweeting your chants and they started to retweet in Egypt already,” Guirguis said.

Some protesters who have participated in Occupy Austin attended the event, assistant English professor Sneval Shingavi among them. Shingavi said it is important to see the link between the Occupy movements and the Arab spring.

“We should be very savvy about this one percent that has told us that they do what’s in the best interest of our economic benefit,” Shingavi said. “It’s the same one percent that tells Afghanis, and Iraqis, and Libiyans, and Syrians and Egyptians that the United States is working in their best interests.”

Shingavi said bringing democracy to Middle Eastern countries currently under oppressive regimes would be a dynamic issue, but that the U.S. should not intervene.

“If there’s one thing that we’ve learned from 10 years of U.S. military involvement in the Middle East, it’s that where U.S. troops go, democracy does not follow,” he said.

A protester throws a gas canister towards Egyptian riot police, not seen, during clashes in downtown Cairo on Sunday. Firing tear gas and rubber bullets, Egyptian riot police on Sunday clashed for a second day with thousands of rock-throwing protesters.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

CAIRO — Egyptian soldiers and police set fire to protest tents in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and fired tear gas and rubber bullets Sunday to drive out thousands demanding that the military rulers quickly transfer power to a civilian government. At least 11 protesters were killed and hundreds were injured.

It was the second day of clashes marking a sharp escalation of tensions on Egypt’s streets a week before the first elections since the ouster of longtime authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak in February. The military took over the country, promising a swift transition to civilian rule. But the pro-democracy protesters who led the uprising have grown increasingly angry with the ruling generals, and suspect they are trying to cling to power even after an elected parliament is seated and a new president is voted in.

The military-backed Cabinet said in a statement that elections set to begin on Nov. 28 would take place on time and thanked the police for their “restraint,” language that is likely to enrage the protesters even more.

The two days of clashes were some of the worst since the uprising ended on Feb. 11.

They were also one of only a few violent confrontations to involve the police since the uprising. The military, which took over from Mubarak, has repeatedly pledged to hand power to an elected civilian government, but has yet to set a specific date. The protests over the past two days have demanded a specific date be set.

According to one timetable floated by the army, the handover will happen after presidential elections late next year or early in 2013. The protesters say this is too long and accuse the military of dragging its feet. They want a handover immediately after the staggered parliamentary elections, which begin on Nov. 28 and end in March.

The protesters’ suspicions about the military were fed by a proposal issued by the military-appointed Cabinet last week. It would shield the armed forces from any civilian oversight and give the generals veto power over legislation dealing with military affairs.

But other concerns are also feeding the tensions on the street. Many Egyptians are anxious about what the impending elections will bring. Specifically they worry that stalwarts of Mubarak’s ruling party could win a significant number of seats in the next parliament because the military did not ban them from running for public office as requested by activists.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces issued a statement expressing “regret for the events.”

The council doesn’t intend “to extend the transitional period and will not permit by any means hindering the process of democratic transition,” it said in a statement read out on state TV.

Clashes also took place in the city of Suez east of Cairo, the coastal city of el-Arish in the Sinai Peninsula, the city of Alexandria and Assiut in southern Egypt.

A UT graduate student stood with protesters in downtown Cairo as they barricaded themselves against military attacks and fought for a revolution in the midst of former President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation.

Law and urban planning graduate student Sherief Gaber flew straight into Cairo on Jan. 30 to join the protests in Tahrir Square before Mubarak stepped down from the Egyptian presidency. Gaber, who grew up in the United States but holds dual citizenship, booked a ticket to Egypt on Jan. 28.

The protests began on Jan. 25, when Egyptian citizens rallied for a democratic government. More than 300 Egyptian civilians were killed before Mubarak ceded power to the military on Feb. 11. Mubarak was in power for more than 30 years.

“I knew I was just going to be one in a million people there, but I thought on the one hand, my being there would be a way to communicate to people back here what was going on from the perspective of just one among many, not a journalist,” Gaber said.

On Feb. 2, Gaber used a metal barricade to protect other protesters in Tahrir Square. After stepping out from behind the barricade for a moment, he was hit in the face with a stone. He saw a flash of white before getting a nosebleed and losing vision briefly in his right eye, he said.

“There was this moment where the government kind of brought in a bunch of paid thugs with weapons to basically attack the square,” he said. “I was roped into protecting the people in the square. There was this feeling that if we did not stand there and stop them from coming in, they would have killed everybody in the square that night.”

Gaber said he hopes to return to Egypt as soon as possible to celebrate Mubarak’s resignation.

“It was amazing,” he said. “It was different every day. The situation was constantly changing, but overall it was the most exciting place I’ve ever been in. When you were there, when you were in the square, it was like a festival. But you weren’t there to see an artist or anything. You were there to participate with these other people.”

Egypt’s military is not as strong as many believe it to be because of desultory training, poor maintenance of equipment and dependence on American funding and logistical support, said government professor Clement Henry in an article he and Naval Postgraduate School professor Robert Springborg published in February. A civilian government similar to that of Tunisia would work for a country like Egypt because of the similar uprisings and military- and police-based governments, he wrote in the article.

“Since he has dual citizenship, [Gaber] was doing his civic duty,” Henry said.

The dissolving of the Egyptian government came as a shock, said undeclared communications freshman Katelyn Usher, who moved to Maadi, Egypt, in the eighth grade and attended high school there. Maadi is a suburb about 15 minutes south of Cairo.

In addition to news coverage, Usher received mobile updates on the situation from people in Cairo who had access to satellite phones after the Internet and phones were shut off by the government, she said. It a relief that the protesters got what they wanted, she said.

“My dad said they’re just so excited that they won,” she said. “They’re cleaning the streets and painting the trees with the flag colors and passing out stickers with ‘January 25.’ I would love to go there now and celebrate with the Egyptian people.”