By Yasmine Saleh and Paul Taylor
CAIRO (Reuters) - Egypt's ruling Muslim Brotherhood is trying to exact revenge on the judiciary for years of imprisonment and political exclusion, but is attacking the wrong target, opposition leader Amr Moussa said on Monday.
The elder statesman told Reuters that Egypt faced an exceptional "to-be-or-not-to-be crisis" worse than after its 1967 defeat by Israel, and Islamist President Mohamed Mursi would do better to pursue national unity rather than division.
Mursi appeared to back down when he agreed with senior judges on Sunday to seek a compromise on judicial reform instead of acting on proposals by his Islamist supporters to force more than 3,000 judges into retirement.
Moussa, 76, a former Arab League secretary-general and Egyptian foreign minister, said the assault on judicial independence should never have happened in the first place.
"This is not a concession. This is what should have been done from the start," he said in an interview in his liberal opposition Congress Party's office, saying Mursi's climbdown came after strong public disapproval.
Asked what had prompted the campaign against the judiciary, Moussa said: "I believe it is a strange feeling of revenge, of punishment. Some say that the judges were responsible for it (their imprisonment). In fact this was not true. They got a lot of rulings from the judges that they were innocent."
The Muslim Brotherhood was outlawed for much of its nearly 80-year existence, and its members were repeatedly imprisoned, tortured and barred from most political activity under former President Hosni Mubarak, who was overthrown in a 2011 uprising.
Moussa said the Brotherhood was wrong to brand him a "remnant" of the old regime, simply because he had served Mubarak for a decade as foreign minister. That argument had not prevented many Egyptians from voting for him in last year's presidential election, when he came fifth.
"Egypt is not divided between the Muslim Brotherhood and others, or between people of today and people of yesterday. Egypt is for all Egyptians... the previous regime is finished, is gone," he said.
Even though Mubarak was now on trial in a courtroom cage, he said the Brotherhood seemed to fear "that he might come again, the former president. This is paranoia."
Asked whether the former ruler should be pardoned or punished over charges of corruption and killing protesters, he said: "I have faith in the Egyptian judiciary, that things will be put in the right perspective."
Moussa said there were dangerous precedents in Egyptian history of rulers interfering with the judiciary. He was referring to President Gamal Abdel Nasser's 1969 action to sack about 100 judges, which became known as the "judicial massacre".
Mursi's Islamist allies had proposed a law to force judges to retire at 60 instead of 70 that would have purged nearly one-third of the 13,000 judges and prosecutors at a stroke, and replace them with new appointees.
These newcomers would be an unknown quantity, Moussa suggested. "Are they going to be judges in the right sense of the word or just political agents?" he asked.
Moussa said a growing number of Egyptians were so discontented with the political and economic situation that they were beginning to call for a return to military rule. This was a failure of both the government and the opposition, he said.
"That shows the effects of the wrong policies, the ill-considered policies that have been formed by the Brotherhood. It brought back the desire of the people for the protection of the army against policies that they disagree with," he said.
A member of the National Salvation Front opposition coalition of secular, liberal and leftist parties, Moussa said the army had no desire to get involved in politics but he did not totally rule out military intervention.
The armed forces could feel a responsibility to act "if and when a country gets into major confrontation, total breakdown, something like that. But we are not at this stage," he said.
(Writing by Paul Taylor; Editing by Alistair Lyon)