— Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi has promised the country’s top judges that he will restrict his newly self-granted powers to sovereign matters.
Morsi spokesman Yasser Ali said the Islamist president made the pledge Monday during talks with the Supreme Judicial Council. There was no definition of the sovereign matters over which President Morsi will have absolute power. He granted himself that power in a November 22 decree that bars the judiciary from challenging his decisions.
The spokesman said Morsi’s clarification on the issue of "sovereign matters" does not constitute a change to the decree.
Opposition groups were preparing to hold a mass protest in Cairo's Tahrir Square on Tuesday to demand the cancellation of Morsi's decree. They accuse him of trying to assume dictatorial powers like those of his longtime predecessor Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted in a 2011 popular uprising.
Morsi has defended his move as a temporary measure to speed up democratic reforms delayed by legal challenges under a judicial system with many Mubarak-era appointees. He has said his decree will last until new parliamentary elections are held under a revised constitution that must be approved in a national referendum.
Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood movement had planned to rally in Cairo on Tuesday in support of the president, but it called off the event, saying it wants to avoid confrontation.
Opposition activists also launched a legal challenge to Morsi’s decree on Monday, filing lawsuits in an administrative court that said it will begin hearing the cases on December 4.
The presidential decree triggered several days of street battles between Morsi opponents, supporters and police in major Egyptian cities.
Authorities said the clashes killed an Islamist activist and wounded at least 370 other people. Thousands of people gathered in the northern Nile Delta town of Damanhour on Monday for the funeral of the teenage Islamist, who was killed the previous day when anti-Morsi rioters stormed a Muslim Brotherhood office.
Morsi argues he needs to sweep the judiciary of the old guard to ensure a new constitution and parliament.
But the desire for checks and balances against absolute power, a driving force in last year's revolution, remains.
Morsi's opponents hope the power of the street will act as a check on what some are calling his attempt to become “a new pharaoh.”
“I think it is a bit of an exaggeration, not because I know his intentions - I really don't care about his intentions - but I think he cannot really become a new pharaoh and what we've witnessed over the past few days really testifies to that,” said activist Khalil.
The rallies have reinvigorated a fractured opposition.
Political analyst Mustafa el-Labbad said that Tuesday's protest was called by everyone from leftists to nationalists.
“All non-Islamic forces will be there and I think this result is not so bright for Mr. Morsi,” he said.
Ramifications are being felt economically, with Egypt's stock market plunging despite a new preliminary deal with the International Monetary Fund, and international kudos for Egypt's role in brokering a cease-fire in Gaza last week.
“They are misinterpreting that as a green light for them as Western recognition so they can do what they want internally in Egypt," el-Labbad said. "I think it is a fatal mistake.”
Failing to stop the nation's economic decline is worrying.
“I think that contributed to the anger against him - that he didn't attempt to do that," political activist Khalil said. "Had he, for instance, tried to do something for the people, to introduce improvement in livelihoods and the judges stopped it, then he would have had a case."
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the United States has concerns about the Morsi decree but considers that to be a separate issue from the Egyptian president’s mediation of a November 21 cease-fire between Israel and Palestinian militant group Hamas.
Carney reiterated U.S. praise for what he called Mr. Morsi’s “constructive” role in achieving the truce. He also said Washington will keep working toward an Egyptian transition to a democratic government that reflects the will of the people.
In Washington, U.S. Senator John McCain criticized Morsi's decree as "unacceptable," in an interview with the television network Fox News.
The Obama administration has proposed a $1 billion debt relief package for Egypt to help revive its struggling economy. Egypt also has received billions of dollars in U.S. military aid over three decades of close relations.
The U.S. State Department said the Morsi declarations "raise concerns for many Egyptians and for the international community." It said one of the aspirations of the 2011 revolution was "to ensure that power would not be overly concentrated in the hands of any one person or institution."
VOA's Mark Snowiss contributed to this report from Washington
Protesters chant anti-government slogans in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, November 30, 2012.
Protesters in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, November 30, 2012.
Merchants sell bread to protesters, some of whom have camped out in tents since last week, as opposition groups plan to gather for a rally in Tahrir Square, Cairo, Egypt, November 30, 2012.
Youths climb a wall that was built by police to prevent clashes between protesters and police at Tahrir Square, Cairo, Egypt, November 29, 2012.
Youths walk next to a pirate flag on display by a street vendor in Tahrir Square, Cairo, Egypt, November 29, 2012.
Riot police and protesters throw stones at one another during clashes near Tahrir Square, Cairo, Egypt, November 28, 2012.
Protesters run during clashes with police near Tahrir Square, Cairo, Egypt, November 28, 2012.
A protester carries stones to throw at the police during clashes near Tahrir Square, Cairo, Egypt, November 28, 2012.
A protester reads the Wafd, a local newspaper next to tents occupied by protesters in Tahrir Square, in Cairo, Egypt, November 28, 2012.
A shot of Tahrir Square in Cairo as night falls, November 27, 2012. (J. Weeks/VOA)
Egyptian security forces arrest a protester during clashes near Tahrir Square, Cairo, Egypt, November 27, 2012.
An Egyptian protester blows a stadium horn as he gestures at a cordon of security forces near Tahrir Square, Cairo, Egypt, November 27, 2012.
A protester throws stones at riot police during clashes at Tahrir Square in Cairo November 26, 2012.
Egyptians attend the funeral of youth activist Gaber Salah, also known as Gika, at the Omar Makram mosque in Cairo, November 26, 2012.
An Egyptian protester runs during clashes with security forces near Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, November 25, 2012.