CAIRO – A court declared that Egypt's 3-month-old state of emergency expired Tuesday, two days earlier than expected, throwing the government and security agencies into confusion amid worries that its lifting could add new fire to protests by supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi.
Morsi, meanwhile, held his first extensive meeting with lawyers in a prison near the Mediterranean city of Alexandria. He had been held in secret military detention with almost no contact with the outside world since he was ousted in a July 3 popularly backed coup, but he was moved to a regular prison last week after the first session of his trial on charges of inciting murder.
Morsi handed the lawyers, from the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies, a statement addressing the Egyptian people and "all parties" to be announced by the lawyers on Wednesday, Morsi's son Osama, a lawyer who was among those who met him, told The Associated Press. He said his father is still refusing to allow any lawyer to represent him in the trial because he insists he remains president and does not recognize the tribunal.
The state of emergency and a nighttime curfew imposed along with it have been aimed at helping authorities tighten their security grip and control on near daily protests that frequently descended into violence by pro-Morsi supporters and his Muslim Brotherhood demanding his reinstatement and the reversal of what the call an illegal coup against democracy.
On Monday, Interior Minister Mahmoud Ibrahim, who heads the security forces, said the state of emergency would expire on Thursday and that security reinforcements would deploy in the streets at that time — a sign of the worries over intensified protests.
The surprise ruling by the Cairo Administrative Court ordering the lifting Tuesday appeared to have caught the government off guard — and authorities said they were not immediately implementing it until the court formally notifies them of the decision.
The confusion came because the state of emergency was initially announced for a month on Aug. 14. But the government renewed it for another two months on Sept. 12. The court said that means it ends on Nov. 12, not Nov. 14.
The Cabinet put out a statement saying it will abide by the ruling, though it said it will wait for the details of the ruling to issue the verdict in writing. It was not clear what would happen if the court did not do so on Tuesday.
The spokesman of the military, Col. Ahmed Mohammed Ali, said the military has not been "notified officially of any court ruling so far." In a statement, he said the curfew — which begins at 1 a.m. — will be implemented as planned unless the written ruling is issued.
The state news agency also cited an unidentified high ranking Interior Ministry official saying the ministry has not received the court's ruling. It said security forces have started deploying to secure the Egyptian street.
It was not clear how binding the ruling is. The court said its decision came in response to a lawsuit questioning legality of the state of emergency, and the court rejected the lawsuit saying that it has already expired. A senior judge in the court, Abdel-Maguid al-Mouqanan, told the state news agency that the ruling doesn't obligate the government to put an end to the state of emergency.
The state of emergency gives security forces wide powers of arrest. It was imposed after police broke up two pro-Morsi protest camps in a heavy crackdown that left hundreds of protesters dead. The country has seen persistent violence since, including further bloody crackdowns on protests, retaliatory violence blamed on Islamists, and a wave of attacks on churches, security forces and the military by Islamic militants, mainly in the Sinai Peninsula.
Under the crackdown, protests have mostly waned and have been reduced to small gatherings concentrated inside universities. On Tuesday, police forces entered Mansoura University, in the Nile Delta, after clashes erupted on the campus between Morsi supporters and other students.
In the latest in a wave of detentions of leading Brotherhood figures, security forces on Tuesday arrested Bassem Ouda, who served as supply minister under Morsi, while he was hiding inside a soap factory near the Mediterranean city of Alexandria, security officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press.
Ouda joins a large number of Brotherhood leaders detained on charges of inciting violence in relation to clashes that took place before and after Morsi's ouster.
Fearing return of mass demonstrations, the military-backed interim government is working on a controversial new law that would restrict the right to protest by forcing organizers to seek a permit to hold any gathering — something authorities can deny if they see it threatening public order. Violators risk jail terms and heavy fines.
Presidential spokesman Ihab Badawi said a final draft of the law has been sent to the presidency and will be passed shortly.
Earlier, Human Rights Watch and other groups condemned the law for it "effectively give the police carte blanche to ban protests in Egypt" and allows officers to use force to disperse them, "even when a single protester throws a stone."
The law was first introduced during Morsi's one-year presidency, when it was also met with heavy criticism.
Morsi's trial is set to resume on Jan. 8. Some in the team of lawyers who met him are urging Morsi to allow legal representation in the trial.
But his son Osama said Morsi's "position has not changed after the meeting," which he described as "heated," without elaborating. The son said Mori was consulting with the legal team on measures he could take "against the coup."
The lawyers planned a press conference for Wednesday, when it appeared the statement that Morsi gave to them would be released.
Morsi"s only previous contact with lawyers was brief discussions during the first session of his trial, on Nov. 4.
At that session, Morsi repeatedly launched into political speeches, calling the proceedings illegitimate and saying the judges didn't have jurisdiction to try a president. He repeatedly insisted he remains the country's leader and called his trial a "cover for a military coup."
At the next session, Morsi is expected to tell the court whether he will accept the defense team.
Morsi and 14 co-defendants — seven of whom are still at large — are charged with inciting the killing of protesters who massed outside the presidential palace in December 2012 and demanded that he call off a referendum on a new Islamist-drafted constitution. Brotherhood members and supporters attacked a sit-in by the protesters, sparking clashes that left 10 people dead.
Morsi and the others are also accused of inciting Brotherhood supporters to illegally hold and abuse opponents in a makeshift detention center outside the palace.