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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish. Thousands of protesters flooded into the streets of Egypt today, some in support of the Islamist President Mohamed Morsi, others condemning what they called a power grab by the president that puts Egypt on the path to one-man rule. It is, in short, a nation visibly divided today. NPR's Leila Fadel reports from Cairo.
CROWD: (Chanting) Morsi, Morsi...
LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Supporters of Islamist President Morsi chanted his name as he stood in front of them outside the presidential palace. A moment in which Morsi, the elected Islamist president, declared himself protector of last year's revolution and warrior against remnants of former strongman Hosni Mubarak's regime.
PRESIDENT MOHAMED MORSI: (Through translator) I am with what the Egyptian street wants, with clear legitimacy. I did not take any decision to be against anyone. This shouldn't be a concern. I have to put myself on the right road that leads to the right goals.
FADEL: He told the crowds to trust him, he would not abuse exceptional powers. He made his decision to neutralize the judiciary in order to rebuild Egypt's state institutions and root out remnants of the old regime.
MORSI: (Through translator) I would like to say: rest assured, I will never be unjust to anyone. Rest assured, I would not give the opportunity to those who want to spoil the revolution.
FADEL: He welcomed the opposition protests, but warned against thugs, Mubarak allies and foreign hands that may be trying to undermine Egypt's transition. All this a day after Morsi made a series of controversial unilateral decrees. One that would put any decision he made above judicial oversight until a constitution is in place. Another that gave him all rights to take any action against anything he deemed a threat to the revolution. And a third that protects Egypt's constituent assembly, tasked with writing the constitution, and the largely toothless upper-house of parliament from judicial challenges. The decisions drew international and domestic outcries.
CROWD: (Chanting in foreign language)
FADEL: Nermine Yosri protested with thousands of others, mostly from the political liberal elite. She laughed at Morsi's claims that this is the path to democracy.
NERMINE YOSRI: We don't have to do this. We don't have to make a new dictator for democracy. Actually, it's the opposite of the word.
FADEL: Across town, at the presidential palace, a comparably sized demonstration turned out in the thousands to support Morsi.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)
FADEL: Protesters, mostly Islamists, admonished the liberals for trying to stop progress and force their will on the majority.
MOHAMED YOUSSEF: (Foreign language spoken)
FADEL: Mohamed Youssef held a sign. We want to build the country and move on, it read. That, he said, is what Morsi is trying to do. Around him others applauded his move to cleanse the judiciary. Among Morsi's decrees, was the decision to replace the general prosecutor and demand that Mubarak and his top aides be retried for the killing of protesters during last year's revolt. Morsi's allies say this is the only way to democracy. Gehad Haddad, a senior advisor to the Muslim Brotherhood and the Freedom and Justice Party.
GEHAD HADDAD: With such exceptional circumstances as we're in at the moment, every time we're approaching the end of a transitional process or period, the constitutional court intervenes. Let me identify the constitutional court: it's a Mubarak-appointed constitutional court. And it interferes by design to contradict the popular demand of the Egyptians.
FADEL: Haddad says that Morsi is trying to protect the only bodies with a popular mandate. The comparison between Morsi and Mubarak, he says, is ridiculous.
HADDAD: Now, we're talking about the first democratically elected civil president of Egypt who managed to put the military out of power in Egypt, who is working towards building the remaining state institutions so that we can have a stable democracy, and who is being undermined by the remaining pockets of power left over from the Mubarak regime.
FADEL: Observers say Morsi made a shrewd political move at a time when he is receiving international praise for his role in the ceasefire between Hamas and Israel, but also at a time when ordinary Egyptians are tired of the political bickering and want reforms of a corrupt and broken system. Mone el-Ghobashy, an Egypt expert at Barnard College, says claims Morsi is on the path to dictatorship are premature. Right now, there is a time limit on his exceptional powers. When a constitution is in place, the decrees are void.
MONE EL-GHOBASHY: In two or three months from now if we see Morsi further entrenching himself with these kinds of safeguards against judicial review then I think there will be something to the claim that there's dictatorship. But right now as troubling as it is I think those claims are overblown and are being used by his opposition to try to rally support.
FADEL: But human rights groups are concerned that the vast powers Morsi now has will undermine rule of law in Egypt and put all the power in Morsi's hands. Egypt's researcher for Human Rights Watch, Heba Morayef.
HEBA MORAYEF: You don't deal with the need for judicial reform by completely disabling the judiciary's role in providing some oversight to the powers of the executive.
FADEL: Terrifying is the word she uses to describe Morsi's unilateral decrees. Right now, she says, Morsi is the law. Leila Fadel, NPR News, Cairo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.