Egypt’s judges drew up new battle lines in the country’s constitutional crisis on Sunday, announcing they would refuse to work with President Mohammed Morsi until further notice.
The Supreme Constitutional Court put off a key ruling over whether to order the dissolution of the constitutional assembly after the building was surrounded by Muslim Brotherhood protesters.
The deputy head of the court, Egypt’s most senior woman judge, said she had received death threats.
In a statement later, the Court said it was the “Egyptian judiciary’s blackest day on record”.
“The judges of the Supreme Constitutional Court were left with no choice but to announce to the glorious people of Egypt that they cannot carry out their sacred mission in this charged atmosphere,” it said.
Following the postponement of the ruling, the liberal opposition to Mr Morsi announced it would move its protests from Tahrir Square to the presidential palace on Tuesday – mimicking the strategy that led to the downfall of ex-President Hosni Mubarak last year.
But the Brotherhood has been able to muster much more substantial support for its actions than Mr Mubarak ever managed. Hundreds of thousands of members and followers were bussed in for a rally outside Cairo University on Saturday afternoon, and it was hundreds of these who were ordered to march on to the Constitutional Court on Saturday night to continue their demonstration.
“I came here to tell the court to stop interfering with Mr Morsi’s legitimate decisions,” Ayman Sawi, a member from the oasis city of Fayyoum said outside the court. “The court interfered before by dissolving the parliamentary assembly which was elected by 30 million people.
“They wanted to continue by dissolving the constitutional assembly and the upper house of parliament to complete the destruction of the elected establishment.”
Mr Morsi’s declaration of ten days ago putting the assembly’s actions and his own decisions above legal scrutiny has divided Egypt more sharply than ever before.
Liberals and leftists, secular activists and Christians say that Mr Morsi has turned himself into a new dictator, like Mr Mubarak.
Figureheads like Mohammed ElBaradei, the former United Nations atomic energy chief, and Amr Moussa, the former Arab League head and defeated presidential candidate, have formed a new “National Salvation Front” and are refusing to meet Mr Morsi until he rescinds his decree.
Mr Morsi’s declaration was intended to pre-empt the ruling by the Constitutional Court yesterday, which he believed would go against the assembly. Its statement put the judges clearly on the side of the liberal and secular parties in opposition to Mr Morsi and the Brotherhood.
Mr Morsi has refused to back down, and following the assembly’s rushing through a new constitution with an Islamist bent on Friday announced a referendum would be held on December 15. “I tell my opponents before my supporters, help me to carry out this responsibility you bestowed upon me in managing the country’s affairs,” he said in a televised address on Saturday night. “With us all we build the nation.”
His absolute powers will lapse if the constitution is agreed in the referendum – placing the opposition in a bind since a “no” vote is effectively a vote for those powers to be continued.
In a previous interview on Friday, Mr Morsi hinted that “foreign forces” were engaged in a plot to undermine the country’s new democracy, reviving a common conspiracy theory circulated by the Mubarak regime. His advisers claim some judges are loyal to the old regime – they previously disbanded the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated parliament, elected in January.
Both sides are now gambling on the outcome of the referendum to show which of the two camps, Islamist and secular, has a majority in postrevolutionary Egypt.
Tahani el-Gebali, the court’s deputy head, alleged she had been threatened with murder as she tried to enter yesterday morning, and that some protesters were claiming they would burn the building down.
Mr ElBaradei issued a statement by Twitter. “Judiciary almost entirely crippled,” he said. “Where are we headed?”