ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
In Egypt, protesters thronged Cairo's Tahrir Square to denounce a series of controversial decrees issued last week by the country's Islamist president. The last time numbers like this filled the square was the day Mohammed Morsi was elected, when revelers celebrated his victory. Now, Morsi faces the biggest challenge to his rule since he assumed power. NPR's Leila Fadel joins us from Tahrir Square to discuss the latest. Leila, first, tell us what you're seeing around you now.
LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Well, really, we're seeing possibly hundreds of thousands of people from a cross-section of Egyptian society saying we reject the decrees that Mohammed Morsi issued last week, saying we don't want a new dictatorship. I'm going to let you listen for one second to one person I spoke to today referring to the brotherhood in the Arabic term (foreign language spoken).
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yes, we want to say to him that Egypt is not only (foreign language spoken). We are not (foreign language spoken). We are all Egyptians and Muslims.
FADEL: You know, she's saying here we are able to show this force without the presence of the brotherhood. Every protest in the past has always been dominated by them. We're showing them that Egypt is not just the brotherhood.
SIEGEL: How did it get to this point? I mean, less than a week ago, Mohammed Morsi was being praised for his role in mediating a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas. Remind us what exactly he decreed and his justification for doing that.
FADEL: Well, really, the day after he received these international accolades, he issued a series of controversial decrees that essentially nullified the judiciary, put his laws above judicial oversight. And people are saying this is unacceptable. We have a democracy. We have institutions, and we don't want the brotherhood to take them into their one hand. The brotherhood says this is essential to get past remnants of the Mubarak era that are in the court systems and blocking our way to political stability. The parliament has been dissolved in the past by the courts. The first constituent assembly tasked with writing the constitution also dissolved by the court. So that's what they say as their reasoning.
SIEGEL: Well, are there any signs that President Morsi will back down?
FADEL: Well, at this point, we really haven't heard him say anything that shows that he's ready to rescind those decrees, but I'm not sure what he'll do with these hundreds of thousands of people who've really turned out today. To be fair, the Muslim Brotherhood, which is the organization that Morsi hails from, canceled their protest in the capital today because they didn't want bloodshed. So we didn't see a huge turnout for them but also because they said not to do it. But he is going to have to answer to all these people, and people here are hoping that this will be do something.
SIEGEL: And how have the Egyptian judges reacted to all this?
FADEL: Well, Morsi did meet with them for an hour's long meeting yesterday, explaining the decrees to them, saying this is just for sovereign acts, which is a very vague term that judges say just isn't enough. So you're seeing more than 90 percent of courts across the country on strike. Judges saying we will not go to work until this changes because you are threatening the very roots of our system.
SIEGEL: Leila, when you talk with Egyptians, do they share the Islamist view that the judiciary is the old regime trying to thwart the revolution, or do they trust their judges?
FADEL: I think there's a lot of people who really don't trust the judicial system, but I also think that many people don't think this is the path to reform the judicial system, to completely put yourself above oversight of that system, and that's the biggest concern. But a lot of Egyptians are very concerned about the judicial system, and the people that are not in the square tonight actually agree with the president's decision, saying yes, it is Mubarak-era people that are getting in the way of political stability for Egypt, and we need political stability to move on, to fix our economy, to fix problems with out transportation and other issues that affect daily life. In the square tonight, a lot of the people, not all the people, are from really the upper crest of society here, which is not representative of all of Egypt.
SIEGEL: NPR's Leila Fadel in Tahrir Square in Cairo. Thank you, Leila.
FADEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.