CAIRO -- Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi backed off his decision to replace the nation’s prosecutor-general following an outcry Saturday from judges and lawyers criticizing the new Islamist leader for tampering with an independent judiciary.
The retreat was a bracing political lesson for Morsi, who is moving to control government institutions still influenced by officials appointed by deposed autocrat Hosni Mubarak. Morsi deftly maneuvered in August to replace Egypt’s top military commander, but he encountered defiance in recent days from Prosecutor-General Abdel Meguid Mahmoud.
Egyptian law prevents the president from firing the prosecutor-general. Instead, Morsi pressured Mahmoud to accept the role of ambassador to the Vatican. Mahmoud declined and received the backing of judges who supported him Saturday when he showed up for work. That left the president’s staff trying to finesse a way around the embarrassment.
"There was confusion. The acceptance was not complete, was not clear," Vice President Mahmoud Mekki told journalists, referring to the ambassador offer. He said the president decided to keep Mahmoud in his post at the request of the Supreme Judicial Council.
Morsi moved against Mahmoud, an unpopular holdover from an era many Egyptians revile, on Thursday after a court acquitted 24 Mubarak loyalists of plotting an assault on protesters during last year’s uprising. The attack became an international spectacle when camels and horses charged into demonstrators in a desperate attempt for Mubarak to hold on to power.
Egyptians were outraged at the verdict and over other cases in which Mahmoud didn’t win harsh enough verdicts for those connected to Mubarak and his security forces. Mekki said that Morsi wanted Mahmoud reassigned to protect the reputation of the judiciary. But the president’s critics said he tried to marshal public passion to circumvent the nation’s laws.
The case highlights Morsi’s image problem: He has support to reform public institutions, but many are wary that Morsi -– a former leader in the Muslim Brotherhood –- is trying stack the government with Islamists and tip Egypt toward a religiously conservative state.
"Morsi is trying to eliminate everyone who is not in the Brotherhood from key posts," said Mustafa El Labbad, director of the Cairo-based Al Sharq Center for Regional and Strategic Studies. "This move showed how incompetent Morsi's advisers are. They thought they could get away with this."
-- Jeffrey Fleishman, with Reem Abdellatif contributingPhoto: Egyptian Prosecutor-General Abdel-Meguid Mahmoud, center, addresses hundreds of supporters, judges, lawyers and media, not shown, in a downtown courthouse in Cairo on Saturday. Credit: Mohmmed Asad/Associated Press