CAIRO — Egypt’s highest court Sunday postponed ruling on the legitimacy of the constitutional assembly after judges accused Islamist supporters of President Mohamed Morsi of blocking their chambers in a deepening struggle over the country’s political future.
About 2,000 protesters rallied in front of the Supreme Constitutional Court, which was expected to defy a decree by Morsi and rule against the assembly’s authority to write the nation’s new charter. The case has heightened political divisions and created a backlash against judges connected to the deposed government of longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
The judges, whose court rises in Pharaonic-style architecture over the Nile, said the menacing demonstrations marked a “dark day in the history of Egypt’s judiciary.”
The move against the court was the latest skirmish in a separation of powers battle over the constitution. The assembly, which the president had said was immune from judicial oversight, finished a draft constitution on Friday to preempt the court decision. Morsi said the proposed constitution will be voted on in a national referendum Dec. 15, essentially sidelining the court.
But the credibility of the referendum was questioned when the national Judges Club indicated late Sunday that the judiciary might not supervise the balloting. Another pressing concern was whether the military, which ruled the nation after Mubarak’s downfall in 2011, would intervene. Morsi negotiated an agreement in August for the generals to exit politics, but the turmoil is certain to increase pressure on the military’s role.
The protests at the Supreme Constitutional Court highlighted Egypt’s widening political acrimony. A statement by the judges said a huge crowd that surrounded the courthouse and yelled out chants and slogans that “condemned judges” had forced the court’s indefinite suspension. It added that protesters climbed over fences and that judges felt threatened in an atmosphere “charged with hatred and malice and the need for revenge.”
Demonstrators from the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist organizations said they were not looking to harm the judges but to express their anger at a judiciary they increasingly mistrust. Hundreds of riot police officers guarded the court, and it appeared that the judges could have entered the building. Both the court and the Morsi government have portrayed themselves in recent months as victims of conspiracies and power plays orchestrated by the other side.
“We want President Morsi to dissolve the Supreme Constitutional Court because they are completely biased,” said Khaled Mohamed Ali, a teacher and ultraconservative Islamist, standing outside the court and echoing comments made by Morsi days earlier. “A court must be fair and depoliticized.”
But secular and liberal opposition movements across the country have been protesting against Morsi’s power grab for more than a week, reviving the revolutionary fervor that brought down Mubarak in February 2011. Such opponents say that Morsi, who was elected in June, has made a sham of democracy and that the constitution raises the prospect that Islamic law could jeopardize civil rights.
Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood have stressed that the president’s expanded powers are necessary to blunt attempts by Mubarak-era courts to derail Egypt’s political transition. If the constitution is approved by the public, a new parliament — the court dissolved an earlier Islamist-led legislature in June — will be voted in early next year.
The Muslim Brotherhood urged protesters not to interfere with the court, but the rally resonated with the anti-court sentiment the Brotherhood has been playing on for months. Morsi, a former leader of the Brotherhood, was sworn into office in front of the court, but acrimony between him and the judges has sharpened as his government has been beset with economic and political turmoil.
“When the president took his oath in front of the Supreme Constitutional Court, he did it with good intentions,” said Mohamed Zayed, an Islamic preacher. “He did not know they would lead a campaign against him later, he thought they could work together. We didn’t want things to end this way, but it happened.”
The court has denied loyalty to Mubarak and accusations that it is attempting to destabilize the nation’s transition. But statements by judges have indicated that the court is worried about the rising power of Islamists. Judges in a number of cities have been on strike for nearly a week. Ahmed Zind, head of the Judges Club, characterized Sunday’s rally as “an attempt to intimidate and terrorize the judges.”
But Morsi’s vice president, Judge Mahmoud Mekky, said “it is unlikely for the judges to follow through with their threats to not oversee the constitutional referendum.”
There appears little room for compromise. The Supreme Constitutional Court said that it recognized with “sorrow and pain that the practices of moral assassination on its judges, which have been taking place recently — from this crowd and others who belong to it, and who are protesting today against court — are the ones that led to this appalling and shameful scene.”
Morsi called for fresh talks with the opposition to ease the crisis. The pressure on him and the Brotherhood is likely to intensify Tuesday, when opposition groups, which have been protesting in Tahrir Square, plan to march on the presidential palace.
Abdellatif is a special correspondent.