CAIRO – Egypt's top court suspended its work indefinitely to protest "psychological and physical pressures" after supporters of the Islamist president prevented judges from entering the courthouse Sunday to rule on the legitimacy of a disputed constitutional assembly.
The decision by the Supreme Constitutional Court is the latest twist in a worsening political crisis pitting President Mohammed Morsi and his allies against the mostly secular opposition and the powerful judiciary. The standoff began when Morsi issued decrees on Nov. 22 that gave him sweeping powers and granted the president -- and the constitutional committee -- immunity from the courts.
The Islamist-dominated panel drafting the new constitution then raced in a marathon session last week to vote on the charter's 236 clauses without the participation of liberal and Christian members. The fast-track hearing preempted a decision expected from the SCC on whether to dissolve the committee. The judges on Sunday postponed their ruling on that case.
A day earlier, Morsi announced a referendum on the draft charter on Dec. 15 despite opposition protests and questions about the document's legitimacy.
The president's seizure of vast powers has galvanized Egypt's disparate opposition groups, who have united in their demands that Morsi rescind the decrees and create a constituent assembly that is more balanced and inclusive.
Having already held mass rallies last week in Cairo that drew as many as 200,000 people, the opposition parties and activist groups have now called for a march Tuesday on the presidential palace in Cairo's Heliopolis district as a "last warning."
Morsi's supporters countered the opposition rallies with a 100,000-strong rally in Cairo on Saturday to voice their support for the president and the draft constitution. Islamists boasted their turnout showed that the public supports the push by the country's first freely elected president to quickly bring a constitution and provide stability after nearly two years of turmoil.
But the dispute has polarized an already deeply divided Egyptian public, and thrown the country -- already suffering from rising crime and economic woes -- into its worst turmoil since Morsi took office in June as the country's first freely elected president.
The Supreme Constitutional Court called Sunday "the Egyptian judiciary's blackest day on record," describing the scene outside the court complex, with Islamist demonstrators carrying banners denouncing the tribunal and some of its judges.
Supporters of Morsi, who hails from the Islamic fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, claim that the court's judges are loyalists of ousted president Hosni Mubarak, who appointed them. Morsi's backers accuse the judges of trying to derail Egypt's transition to democratic rule.
The court statement said the judges approached the court but decided against entering the building because they feared for their safety.
"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," said the statement, which was carried by the MENA state news agency.
The judges also had been expected Sunday to rule to on the legitimacy of the Islamist-dominated upper house of parliament, known as the Shura Council.
By suspending its work, the court joined the country's highest appeals court and its sister lower court in their indefinite strike to protest what they see as Morsi's infringement on the judiciary. Most judges and prosecutors in the country have been on strike for a week.
The strikes by the judges is indefinite and there have been calls within their ranks to extend their action to a boycott of overseeing the Dec. 15 referendum, something that would further question the legitimacy of the entire process. The opposition is likely to call on its supporters to boycott the vote.
The tug of war between the two sides also has spilled into the streets. Tens of thousands of opposition supporters staged two rallies last week to press calls for Morsi to rescind his decrees and for the constitution draft to be tossed out. Islamists responded Saturday with large rallies in Cairo and across much of the country.
Morsi's opponents say his call for a referendum broke an election promise not to do so unless there was consensus on the document, something that is missing as the 88 members of the panel who voted on its clauses included no liberals or Christians. There were only four women, all Islamists.
The panel passed the document in a rushed, 16-hour session that lasted until sunrise Friday. The vote was abruptly moved up to pass the draft before the Constitutional Court's ruling, which was supposed to be issued Sunday.
The draft has a distinctive Islamic bent -- enough to worry many that civil liberties could be restricted, though its provisions for enforcing Shariah, or Islamic law, are not as firm as ultraconservatives wished.
The panel's chairman, Islamist Hossam al-Ghiryani, kept the voting at a rapid clip, badgering members to drop disputes and objections and move on. At times the process appeared slap-dash, with fixes to missing phrasing and even several entirely new articles proposed, written and voted on in the hours just before sunrise.