Liberals — and the US State Department — have expressed concern at Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s decree last week in which he granted himself absolute authority.

A young Islamist has been killed in clashes with protesters outside a local Muslim Brotherhood office in Alexandria, Egypt after thousands took to the streets over the weekend to protest the decree.

“The President can issue any decision or measure to protect the revolution,” read out a government spokesman on state television at 7pm last Thursday. “The constitutional declarations, decisions and laws issued by the president are final and not subject to appeal.”

This declaration caught many in Egypt by surprise. After all, it’s been a busy week for Egypt’s rulers.

Just a day earlier, Mosri was instrumental in negotiating a cease-fire between Hamas and Israel. And a day before that, Mosri was busy negotiating a solution to Egypt’s liquidity crunch: a low-interest $US4.8 billion IMF loan, finally and controversially secured after months of debate (Egypt’s radical Islamic Salafi parties opposed the loan on religious grounds).

But on Thursday afternoon, Muslim Brotherhood supporters began to gather outside the Supreme House of the Judiciary. Something else was brewing. Soon enough, Mosri’s decree was read out.

The reasons given for the change are broad and flexible. Morsi needs these powers to guard against “any danger threatening the January 25 revolution, the life of the nation, national unity, the safety of the nation, or hampering the ability of state institutions to perform their roles”. Mosri also ruled that no judicial body could dissolve the Shura Council, the upper house of the Egyptian Parliament, or the Islamist-dominated Constitutional Assembly that is drafting Egypt’s new constitution. This pre-empts the verdict of ongoing appeals that could see either body declared unconstitutional.

Mosri also extended the period of time the Constitutional Assembly has to draft the new constitution by two months, to make up for time lost when the non-Islamist blocks of the Assembly walked out in protest at the increased domination of the Islamist majority.

On the face of it, Morsi did put a limit to this period of absolute authority, stating that his laws were only unassailable until a new constitution is agreed upon and a new lower house is elected.

Muslim Brotherhood supporters argue the new powers for Morsi are needed in order to prevent the military and judiciary from acting to halt or reverse the revolution. But many of Egypt’s leading liberals are sceptical, and it’s easy to see why. Deposed president Hosni Mubarak, after all, ruled Egypt for 30 years under an Emergency Decree that granted him similarly broad powers. It doesn’t bode well that within five months of taking office as Egypt’s first elected ruler in recent history, Morsi has granted himself the same.

Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel-prize-winning former head of the UN Atomic Inspections agency and one-time ally to the Muslim Brotherhood, said Morsi had crowned himself the “new Pharaoh”.

Wael Ghonim, the Google executive kidnapped in the former regime’s dying days after his “We are all Khaled Saeed” Facebook page spurred thousands onto the streets, was similarly critical. He said the revolution had not been staged “in search of a benign dictator”.

Egypt’s judiciary, whose powers have been vastly reduced by Morsi’s decree, have gone on strike in Alexandria, Egypt’s second-largest city. Egypt’s highest court denounced the rulings as “an unprecedented attack on the independence of the judiciary and its rulings”, a reference to another part of the decree.

In the same announcement, Morsi ordered “new investigations and re-trials” of those accused of being responsible for the deaths of protesters during the January 25 revolution, a decision that could implicate senior military leaders. Those accused of responsibility for the 840 people who died nearly two years ago have largely received lenient sentences or been let off, a fact many blamed on the Prosecutor General who is seen as tainted by his association with the former regime (Morsi fired him last Thursday — another part of the decree).

The US State Department, still Egypt’s largest source of aid, has expressed its concerns in guarded language. Protests both for and against Morsi are expected to continue.