CAIRO - With public pressure mounting, President Mohammed Morsi appeared to pull back Monday from his attempt to assert an authority beyond the reach of any court. His allies in the Muslim Brotherhood canceled plans for a large demonstration in his support, signaling a chance to calm an escalating battle that has paralyzed a divided nation.
After Morsi met for hours with the judges of Egypt's Supreme Judicial Council, his spokesman read an "explanation" on Egyptian television that appeared to backtrack from a presidential decree that had placed Morsi's official edicts above judicial scrutiny -- even while saying the president had not actually changed a word of the statement.
Even though details of the talks remained hazy, and it was not at all clear whether the opposition or even the court would accept his position, Morsi's gesture was another demonstration that Egyptians would no longer allow their rulers to operate above the law. But there appeared little chance that Morsi's gesture alone would be enough to quell the crisis set off by his perceived power grab.
How far that gesture might go toward alleviating the political crisis, however, remained uncertain. Protesters remained camped in Tahrir Square, and the opposition was proceeding with plans for a major demonstration Tuesday.
In a televised statement, presidential spokesman Yasser Ali said for the first time that Morsi had sought only to assert pre-existing powers approved by the courts under previous precedents, not to give himself carte blanche from oversight.
He said that the president meant all along to follow an established Egyptian legal doctrine suspending judicial scrutiny of presidential "acts of sovereignty" that work "to protect the main institutions of the state." Morsi had maintained from the moment of his decree that his purpose was to empower himself to protect the constitutional assembly from threats that Mubarak-appointed judges might dissolve the constituent assembly, which is led by his fellow Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party.
But the text of the original decree exempted all presidential edicts from judicial review until the ratification of a constitution, not just those edicts justified as "acts of sovereignty."
Legal experts said the spokesman's "explanations" of the president's intentions, if put into effect, would amount to a revision of Thursday's decree. But lawyers said the verbal statements alone carried little legal weight.
How the courts would apply the doctrine remained difficult to predict. And Morsi's political opposition indicated it was holding out for far greater concessions, including the breakup of the Islamist-led constituent assembly.
Speaking at a news conference while Morsi was meeting with the judges, opposition activist and intellectual Abdel Haleem Qandeil called for "a long-term battle," declaring that withdrawal of Morsi's new powers was only the first step toward the opposition's goal of "the withdrawal of the legitimacy of Morsi's presence in the presidential palace." Completely withdrawing the edict would be "a minimum," he said.
The attempt to qualify Morsi's position follows four days of rising tensions and flashes of violence set off by his edict. He argued that he was forced to act because of indications that the Mubarak-appointed judges of Egypt's top courts were poised to dissolve the constitutional assembly as soon as next week. The courts had already shuttered the democratically elected Parliament and an earlier constitutional assembly -- both dominated by Islamists -- and the courts had also rejected an earlier decree Morsi issued to try to reopen the Parliament.
By enabling the current assembly to complete its work, Morsi said, he would expedite the transition to a stable democracy with a written constitution and an elected Parliament that would limit his own powers. His supporters portrayed his assertion of executive power over the judges a triumph of democracy over Egypt's unelected institutions.
To his surprise, according to at least one adviser, Morsi's decree exempting himself from judicial scrutiny set off a furious reaction. The president's fractious political opponents galvanized into a unified coalition. Vandals attacked more than a dozen headquarters of his political party. Thousands demonstrated in the streets. Judges called for a national strike, which has begun in some places.
And the justice minister, a former leader of the judicial independence movement, publicly dissented, arguing that Morsi should limit his attempt to assert immunity from judicial oversight to only acts related to protecting the constituent assembly or other elected bodies -- something the clarification offered Monday appeared to do.