Mohamed Morsi was locked in crisis talks with Egypt's leading judges last night as he desperately tried to scramble out of a confrontation which is threatening to engulf his presidency.
Tens of thousands of protesters are due to stage a mass rally against Mr Morsi in Cairo's Tahrir Square today, as public anger continues to grow over the President's power grab last week.
As tensions rose, the Muslim Brotherhood – of which Mr Morsi is a leading figure – cancelled a protest it had called for in a separate part of the capital. It cited concerns over potential confrontations as the reason for shelving the rally.
Following Mr Morsi's meeting with the judges, a presidential spokesman appeared to suggest that the Egyptian leader stood by last week's decree and that his powers did not encroach on to those of the judiciary. Speaking to the Associated Press, human-rights lawyer Ahmed Ragheb accused Mr Morsi of "playing with words".
Writing in yesterday's Al-Tahrir newspaper, columnist Wael Abdel Fattah said: "We are facing an attempt to build a new dictatorship." His comments reflected the views of many Brotherhood opponents who remain highly suspicious of the Islamist organisation. More than 400 people have been injured in violent protests which broke out after Mr Morsi's decree on Thursday. On Sunday night, it was confirmed that a young Brotherhood member, Islam Fathi Masoud, 15, was killed in the northern town of Damanhour when protesters attacked the headquarters of the Brotherhood's political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party.
In Cairo yesterday, thousands attended the funeral of Gaber Salah, a 17-year-old who was shot in the head by police near Tahrir Square last week.
Trouble flared after Mr Morsi issued a constitutional declaration on Thursday exempting him from any kind of oversight by the judiciary. The decree also prevented judges from dissolving the Islamist-dominated assembly, which is drafting a new constitution – a body that has been plagued by walkouts and internecine bickering since it was established in the summer.
Egypt's judiciary, which was often a bulwark against Mubarak-era despotism but still retains many judges who were hand-picked by the old regime, has been a bête noire of the Brotherhood, dissolving the first revolutionary parliament and then threatening to disband the constituent assembly. Leading Brotherhood officials argued that Mr Morsi's decree was necessary to ensure that Egypt's stuttering transition did not plunge into further pitfalls. Cloaking themselves in the lexicon of the uprising, they cast themselves as Egypt's revolutionary flag-bearers, but their efforts were rebuked.
Mr Morsi's opponents are refusing even to talk with the Egyptian leader until he revokes the decree in its entirety. "There is no room for dialogue when a dictator imposes the most oppressive, abhorrent measures and then says, 'Let us split the difference'," said the opposition leader, Mohamed el-Baradei.
Last night's talks with the Supreme Judiciary Council – which oversees the courts – were aimed at negotiating a face-saving exit for Mr Morsi. Many judges were incensed by the manner in which the President leapfrogged their jurisdiction, and the Brotherhood now wants to reach a deal which prevents a full-throttle U-turn but returns some power to the courts.