CAIRO – Egypt's two highest appeals courts suspended their work Wednesday to protest presidential decrees that gave the country's Islamist leader Mohammed Morsi nearly absolute powers, state television reported.
Judges of the Cassation Court decided in an emergency meeting that they will not return to work until Morsi rescinds his decrees, according to state TV. The country's lower appeals court also decided Wednesday to stop work nationwide.
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.
Meanwhile, widespread protests continued in Cairo's Tahrir square, as hundreds of demonstrators gathered Wednesday for a sixth day to protest Morsi's decrees.
"Suddenly Morsi is issuing laws and becoming the absolute ruler, holding all powers in his hands," said protester Mona Sadek, a 31-year-old engineering graduate who wears the Islamic veil, a hallmark of piety. "Our revolt against the decrees became a protest against the Brotherhood as well."
Clashes erupted Tuesday between several hundred young protesters throwing stones and police firing tear gas on a street off Tahrir leading to the U.S. Embassy. Mist-like white clouds caused by the tear gas hung close to the ground at the area. Clashes have been taking place at the site for several days, fueled by anger over police abuses, separately from the crisis over Morsi.
A 52-year-old man died after inhaling tear gas, becoming the second person to die since the protests began last week, Reuters reports.
The strong turnout for the rallies -- which took place in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria and other cities -- escalates a standoff between Morsi and the opposition over his declaration last week of new powers for himself. So far, Morsi has shown no sign of backing down to demands he rescind the edicts, which effectively neutered the judiciary, the only government branch capable of balancing the presidency.
The edicts have energized the liberal and secular opposition after months of divisions and uncertainty while Islamists from the Muslim Brotherhood and other groups rose to dominate the political landscape. The backlash over the edicts also has been further fueled by broader anger over what critics see as the Brotherhood's monopolizing of power after its election victories the past year for parliament and the presidency.
Raafat Magdi, an engineer, said, "We want to change this whole setting. The Brotherhood hijacked the revolution."
"People woke up to his (Morsi's) mistakes, and in any new elections they will get no votes," said Magdi, who was among a crowd of around 10, 000 marching from the Cairo district of Shubra to Tahrir to the beat of drums and chanting against the Brotherhood. Reform leader Mohammed ElBaradie led the march.
Former presidential candidate Amr Moussa, now a prominent opposition leader, said the protest showed "where the nation's political forces stand on the constitutional declaration."
"Wisdom dictates that the declaration must be reconsidered," Moussa, a former Arab League chief, told the private CBC TV station by telephone.
But Gehad el-Haddad, a senior adviser to the Brotherhood and its political party, told The Associated Press that the opposition was "very divided" and that Morsi would not back down.
"We are not rescinding the declaration," he said.
Morsi says the decrees are necessary to protect the "revolution" and the nation's transition to democratic rule.
His declaration made all his decisions immune to judicial review and banned the courts from dissolving the upper house of parliament and an assembly writing the new constitution, both of which are dominated by Islamists. The decree also gave Morsi sweeping authority to stop any "threats" to the revolution, public order or state institutions. The powers would last until the constitution is approved and parliamentary elections are held, not likely before spring 2013.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.