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Meanwhile, judges and lawyers in several places across the country held a strike for a third consecutive day, and the Judges’ Club, a union for jurists, said it would intensify its opposition to the decrees.

Backed into a corner?

On Monday, Mr. Morsi tried to assuage Egypt’s top judges by saying he did not usurp its authority in his “temporary” action.

According to a presidential statement, he told the judges that his decrees meant that any decisions he makes on “issues of sovereignty” are immune from judicial review.

The vaguely worded statement did not define those issues, but they were widely interpreted to cover declaration of war, imposition of martial law, breaking diplomatic relations with a foreign nation or dismissing a Cabinet.

But Mr. Morsi’s original edict explicitly gives immunity to all his decisions, and there was no sign it had been changed.

He has said he will relinquish his new powers after a constitution is enacted and parliamentary elections are held next year.

Human rights lawyers and activists remain unconvinced. They see the maneuver as an attempt to defuse the crisis without offering concrete concessions.

“What will be the case if the constitution doesn’t pass the referendum scheduled to take place in a couple of months?” said Mr. Yehia, the accountant protester. “Is Morsi expecting us to live under a new dictatorial regime forever or until, God knows when, Egypt has a constitution?”

Still, some analysts say the decrees were not intended as an attempt to consolidate absolute power but a genuine effort to get the constitution drafting process off the ground.

“I don’t think there is any desire [for a dictatorship]; that is a nonsensical statement on the part of opponents,” said Maha Azzam, associate fellow at the Middle East and North Africa program at London-based think tank Chatham House. “[Mr. Morsi] wanted to stop the dissolution of the assembly charged with writing the new constitution. … There is a strong feeling of the democratic process being stalled by the constitutional [process] being held back.”

Others say that while the decrees might expedite the way to the new constitution, Mr. Morsi’s strategy has been far from perfect.

“You could argue that he doesn’t need to assume these powers to urge the Constituent Assembly to get on with its work, set a deadline, etc.,” said David Hartwell, a Middle East analyst at IHS, a global intelligence firm in London. “That he didn’t anticipate the reaction calls into question his political foresight — questions about his judgment that lead to accusations that the Brotherhood is trying to seize power through the back door.

“Perhaps he’s backed himself into a corner,” he added.

More unrest ahead

Story Continues →