CAIRO (AP) — Egypt’s justice minister submitted his resignation Sunday, a Cabinet spokesman said, in a move that signaled strong disapproval of the president’s handling of a prolonged showdown with the country’s judiciary.
The letter of resignation surfaced publicly a day after President Mohammed Morsi said he would reshuffle the Cabinet, amid calls by both his opponents and supporters for Justice Minister Ahmed Mekki to step down.
In a copy of the letter obtained by The Associated Press, Mekki said that he wanted to leave office in part because of protests against him.
Mekki, a pro-reform judge under the former regime of Hosni Mubarak, faces criticism from judges and activists who accuse him of siding with Morsi by largely keeping silent in the power struggle with the judiciary.
On the other hand, Morsi’s Islamist backers recently accused Mekki of not doing enough to reform the justice system following a number of acquittals of former regime officials charged with corruption and nearly all policemen charged with killing protesters during the 2011 uprising.
The resignation highlights how the judiciary has become a significant battleground. It is the sole branch of government not dominated by Morsi’s Islamist allies, although he does have some backers among the judges. The president has been accused by some judges of trying to undermine their authority, particularly after the judiciary dealt his backers several setbacks including dissolving the Islamist-led lower house of parliament last year and forcing a delay for fresh elections.
Morsi’s supporters engaged in violent street clashes Friday with opponents over calls to “cleanse the judiciary.”
The president said he sees calls to purge the judiciary to fall in the framework of people’s worries over acquittals of Mubarak-era figures.
“This worry is from people who see recent verdicts that do not live up to their expectations,” Morsi said in an interview with Al-Jazeera aired late Saturday.
During Friday’s rallies, Mohammed el-Beltagi, a leading Brotherhood member, told supporters that the judiciary is backing “the counter-revolution” and that Egypt is in need of “revolutionary decisions,” referring to proposed judicial laws.
Among several proposals for reforming the judiciary is one that would lower the retirement age for judges to 60, which could send into retirement as much as a quarter of Egypt’s approximately 13,000 judges and prosecution officials.
Supporters of Morsi say the judiciary is packed with former regime loyalists who are blocking his policies and derailing Egypt’s transition to democracy.
Egypt’s largely liberal opposition are also calling for reforming the judiciary, but say that what Morsi’s backers are seeking is to liquidate the branch and fill it with their own members.
Some fear Islamists would take over the courts and get rid of secular-minded judges, which could consolidate the power of the president’s Muslim Brotherhood group.
Murad Ali, spokesman of the Brotherhood’s party, said in a statement that the group differed with Mekki and expected more from him “at this critical stage.”
The divide played out in Friday’s clashes when Morsi’s supporters rallied outside a Cairo court.
The Justice Ministry had condemned protests outside courthouses and warned against dragging the judiciary into the political fray. It also said that any laws affecting the judiciary must be made in coordination with judges.
Mekki said in his letter that his resignation came as a response to pressure from the president’s opponents and supporters, both of whom called for it. He also mentioned as reason Friday’s protests by Islamists urging a “cleansing” of the judiciary, as well as calls for a new judicial reform law.
“Therefore, a consensus has been reached. Please realize my wish to remove the burden from my shoulders,” he wrote.
Although Cabinet spokesman Alaa el-Hadidy announced on Sunday that Mekki had submitted his resignation, the presidency did not immediately say it had been accepted.
Legal expert Nasser Amin, the head of the Arab Center for the Independence of the Judiciary, says he considers the resignation to have come too late.
“He should have resigned earlier when it first appeared that Morsi was trying to control the judiciary,” Amin said.
“His resignation shows that he has discovered the government does not want to reform the judiciary but wants to control the judiciary,” he added.
Despite his history as a judge who pushed for independence under Mubarak, Mekki outraged activists when he backed a disputed forensic report that said 28-year-old Mohammed al-Gindy had died in a car accident in February. Mekki oversees the state forensic authority.
Family and friends of al-Gindy said he died after he was given electric shocks and repeatedly beaten on his head in detention. Security officials deny he was held in detention.
Mekki also infuriated many in the judiciary when he tried to mediate on behalf of Morsi last November after the president issued decrees that made his decisions immune from judicial challenge for a time. The decrees protected an assembly drafting a new constitution from being dissolved by the courts and allowed him to unilaterally install a new prosecutor. The prosecutor remains in place despite a court order last month annulling his appointment.
The latest blow to Morsi’s backers came Sunday when a government legal agency representing the president lost an appeal to reverse the suspension of parliamentary elections that were slated to start this month.
The ruling by the Supreme Administrative Court, which is final, upholds a lower court ruling to suspend the elections because the law governing the vote was illegal and its passage by the Islamist-dominated temporary parliament was procedurally improper.
The president’s Brotherhood party had been pushing to hold elections for the law-making body now, saying it is essential for stability and a transition to democracy.
The opposition had expressed concerns, however, that the election law allowed for gerrymandering by the Brotherhood-dominated temporary parliament.