Egypt’s highest court on Sunday postponed its much-awaited ruling on the legitimacy of the legislative assembly that drafted a new charter last week, accusing a crowd of Islamists of blocking judges from entering their building on what it called “a dark black day in the history of the Egyptian judiciary.”
Although hundreds of security officers were on hand to ensure that judges of the Supreme Constitutional Court could get into the court, and civilians came and went without any problems, the accusations intensified a standoff between the Mubarak-appointed judges and Egypt’s new Islamist leaders that has thrown the political transition into a new crisis 22 months after the ouster of Hosni Mubarak.
Upon approaching the court on Sunday morning, the judges said in a statement that they saw crowds “closing the entrances of the roads to the gates, climbing the fences, chanting slogans denouncing its judges and inciting the people against them.”
The judges were prevented from entering “because of the threat of harm and danger to their safety,” the statement said, calling it “an abhorrent scene of shame and disgrace.”
As a result, the judges announced that they were “suspending the court’s sessions” until they can resume their work without “psychological and physical pressures.”
Anticipation of the court’s decision on the new constitution had set off the latest political crisis. Fear that the court on Sunday would dissolve the assembly and undo months of work led President Mohamed Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political party, to announce 10 days ago that his edicts were not be subject to judicial review until the completion of the constitution.
Despite Mr. Morsi’s attempt, the same anticipation of dissolution drove the Islamist-dominated assembly to rush out a hurried constitution before the court could act and against the objections of Egypt’s secular parties and the Coptic Christian church. Mubarak-appointed judges have previous dissolved the elected parliament and the first constitutional assembly.
The sudden push by the president and his Islamist allies to push through a constitution over any objections from their secular factions or the courts has unified the opposition, brought hundreds of thousands of protesters to the streets, and set off a wave of attacks on a dozen offices of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party. A judicial trade association has urged judges across the country to go on strike, and some of the highest courts have joined it.
Over the weekend, Mr. Morsi continued to push his plans for the new constitution, setting a national referendum on it for Dec. 15.
“I pray to God and hope that it will be a new day of democracy in Egypt,” he said in a nationally televised speech, calling for a “national dialogue.”
But his recent tone and actions reminded critics of the autocratic ways of his predecessor, and have aroused a new debate here about his commitment to democracy and pluralism at a time when he and his Islamist allies dominate political life.
Mr. Morsi’s advisers call the tactics a regrettable but necessary response to genuine threats to the political transition from what they call the deep state — the vestiges of the autocracy of former President Hosni Mubarak, especially in the news media and the judiciary.
But his critics say they hear a familiar paranoia in Mr. Morsi’s new tone that reminds them of talk of the “hidden hands” and foreign plots that Mr. Mubarak once used to justify his authoritarianism.
“I have sent warnings to many people who know who they are, who may be committing crimes against the homeland,” Mr. Morsi declared in an interview with state television on Thursday night, referring repeatedly to secret information about a “conspiracy” and “real and imminent threats” that he would not disclose. “If anybody tries to derail the transition, I will not allow them.”
In a speech to supporters that unveiled his new push to seize control of the transition’s end, Mr. Morsi was even more zealous. “To the corrupters who hide under respectable cover, I say, ‘Never imagine that I can’t see you,”’ he declared. “I’m on the lookout for them and will never let them go.”
The Muslim Brotherhood has mobilized hundreds of thousands of supporters to rally on Mr. Morsi’s behalf.
On Saturday, crowds gathered at Cairo University to rally in support of the president and against the court. Demonstrators held up banners picturing the court’s judges, and chants derided a deputy chief of the court known for their outspoken political activism and opposition to the Islamists. By the end of the night, some speakers had urged the crowd to gather outside the court the next day.
By about 10 a.m. Sunday, hundreds of Islamists had done just that. Like many demonstrations called by the Muslim Brotherhood, the mainstream Islamist group, it was a mostly middle-aged and middle-class crowd of men in sweaters and a few neckties. Many carried placards with Mr. Morsi’s picture or banners with logo of his party. “Freedom is coming, coming!,” they chanted, denouncing the Mubarak-loyalist who called the judges strike and celebrating the new constitution.
But several armored personnel carriers and hundreds of riot police formed a barrier holding back the demonstration to ensure that the judges could enter the court.
Magdy Hamed, 47, a businessman and member of the Brotherhood’s party attending the rally, said the demonstrators had done nothing to stop the judges from entering. “We didn’t stop them. We are asking them to come down and do their job,” he said, faulting the judges for failing to show up.
Mahmoud Akhas, 51, another businessman and party member, interrupted. “We are here to exert pressure on the Supreme Constitutional Court to comply with the will of the people,” he added, repeating the fears of many Islamists that the court might dissolve the constitutional assembly or even seek to annul the presidential decree granted Mr. Morsi power over the generals.
“The Egyptian people like stability,” Mr. Hamed said. “We don’t want chaos, and we don’t want to start this transition all over again.”