* Islamists say judicial system needs cleaning out
* Judges strike, some courts halt work after decree
* Judiciary says independence at stake
By Edmund Blair and Marwa Awad
CAIRO, Nov 30 Islamist President Mohamed Mursi
is waging a high-stakes battle with Egypt's judges, many of them
foes of his Muslim Brotherhood, which is bent on purging a
judiciary seen as tainted by appointees of ousted leader Hosni
Judges called strikes and top courts halted work in protest
at Mursi's decree last week that extended his powers and put his
actions temporarily above legal challenge to try to speed up
democratic transition in the Arab world's most populous nation.
The decree sparked eight days of confrontation and violence
stoked by Egyptians accusing Mursi of taking over the role of
"pharaoh" from Mubarak. More protests against Mursi's new,
sweeping powers broke out on Friday.
Many judges say their independence is at risk - a risible
notion for Islamists who believe many of their judicial critics
sold out to Mubarak or sacrificed integrity for personal gain
long ago, and are now throwing up obstacles to Mursi's rule.
"The bulk of the judiciary is good but there are those who
are affiliates of the previous regime and the judiciary itself
suffers from bribery and corruption," said Sobhi Saleh, a senior
official in the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party.
Mursi promises to preserve judicial independence in the new
Egypt, but for decades he and his Brotherhood colleagues were at
the sharp end of Mubarak's justice, jailed by exceptional courts
under decades-old emergency laws on terrorism or other charges,
or detained without trial for months or more.
These are recent memories for a group banned until a popular
uprising ended Mubarak's 30-year rule in February 2011. But what
really drew Brotherhood ire was a ruling in June that declared
the Islamist-led parliament void, leading to its dissolution.
For them, it meant that even in the post-Mubarak era elected
bodies could be threatened by an unreformed judicial system,
which is split between liberal, secular-minded judges and those
with Islamist leanings.
Even members of the judiciary admit that Mubarak and his
army-backed predecessors whittled away at the system's integrity
over decades and were able to buy off some officials.
But rights activists and others say Mursi's decree shows his
idea of reform is to change personalities, not the institution,
opening the way to interference in a new form.
"The judiciary is in danger from Mursi's wild adventures,"
said Abdel Nasser Abou al-Wafa, who was among 250 judges at a
raucous meeting in Cairo where just 19 backed Mursi's moves.
Others called for strike action by the courts.
"There are many judges who backed and benefited from
Mubarak's regime but now there is fear the judiciary will be
controlled by the Brotherhood," said judge Ahmed Hussein.
The upsurge in violence and the furore over Mursi's decree,
which surprised even some of his close aides, are being watched
by Washington worried at any instability in a nation that in
1979 became the first Arab state to make peace with Israel.
Mursi issued his decree just one day after winning praise
from President Barack Obama for brokering a truce between Israel
and Hamas Islamists in Gaza. Mursi has denied any link between
his diplomatic success and his decision to announce his decree.
BATTLE OF WILL
The decree intensified debate about the religious and
political direction the new Egypt is taking.
Mursi's lunge at the judiciary may bring him more headaches.
After igniting nationwide protests against his decree, he has
now rushed a new constitution towards a referendum, which judges
- many of whom he has angered - are required to oversee.
"It's not very well thought through," said Heba Morayef of
Human Rights Watch. "He has contributed to politicising this
battle, so instead of talking about institutional reform on
clear criteria, it is now a battle of political will."
In the decree, Mursi also empowered himself to sack the
unpopular public prosecutor.
Mursi aides insist no judicial witch-hunt is planned, but
Islamists clearly had public prosecutor Abdel Meguid Mahmoud in
their sights, blaming him for failing to bring effective cases
against Mubarak and his aides or those suspected of killing
protesters in last year's uprising.
Mursi has now sacked Mahmoud for the second time, after his
first attempt in October was blocked by the courts.
Many of Mursi's foes were just as angry with the prosecutor,
but said his removal should have been left to the judiciary.
The president is now targeting the Supreme Constitutional
Court, whose members were handpicked by Mubarak until his
overthrow, when the judiciary took over that task.
"This is why some of the most notorious judges who were
closely tied to the previous regime are lodged at the
constitutional court," said Saleh of the FJP's legal committee.
The court's ruling in June to invalidate Egypt's lower house
of parliament confirmed Islamist suspicions. Mursi shielded the
upper house from legal challenge in his decree, fearing the
court would mete out the same fate in a ruling due on Sunday.
Among the judges on the court, Egypt's highest, is Tahani
al-Gebali, a Mubarak-era appointee who told Egypt's ON TV that
Mursi had turned "himself into an illegitimate president" by
breaching his oath, sworn before the constitutional court.
In comments to Reuters, Gebali dismissed accusations that
the constitutional court was biased against any group.
In unusual tit-for-tat exchanges, the president indirectly
criticised the court in a speech on Nov. 23. The court voiced
"painful surprise" that Mursi had joined attacks on the panel.
Mursi praised the judiciary overall but vowed to "remove the
cover" from corrupt elements trying to hide.
One of the president's most vocal adversaries is Ahmed
al-Zend, head of the Judges Club - although his critics say he
only found his enthusiasm for an independent judiciary after
Mursi took office. Zend could not be reached for comment.
Mursi has sought dialogue with the judiciary to resolve the
standoff over his decree. He held talks with a senior body of
judges, the Supreme Judicial Council, agreeing that only
decisions on "sovereign" matters would be immune from legal
challenge. That was a compromise proposed by the council.
But the deal with the council does not mean universal
backing in a judicial system where tensions exist between the
secular-minded judges and those with Islamist inclinations.
Among the latter is Ahmed Mekky, Mursi's justice minister. A
group named "Judges for the sake of Egypt" has backed Mursi's
decree and pledged to oversee the constitutional referendum.
But there is a powerful strain opposed to Islamists.
"There are a few judges who are with the Muslim Brotherhood
or Islamists but all the rest are moderate people," said
Muhammad Said al-Ashmawy, 80, a retired judge who headed the
Cairo state security court under Mubarak from 1983 to 1993 when
Islamist militants were the main target of emergency rule.
Author of books critical of political Islam, Ashmawy said
his round-the-clock personal protection was removed two months
ago. "The Muslim Brotherhood doesn't want me to be guarded, not
because of my judgements but because of my books," he said.