Crisis intensifies as protest shuts top court in Egypt

Protests by Islamists allied to Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi forced Egypt’s highest court to adjourn its work indefinitely yesterday, intensifying a conflict between the country’s top judges and the head of state.

The Supreme Constitutional Court said it would not convene until its judges could operate without “psychological and material pressure”, saying protesters had stopped the judges from reaching the building.

Several hundred Morsi supporters had protested outside the court through the night ahead of a session expected to examine the legality of parliament’s upper house and the assembly that drafted a new constitution, both Islamist-controlled.

The cases have cast a legal shadow over Morsi’s efforts to chart a way out of a crisis ignited by a Nov 22 decree that temporarily expanded his powers and led to nationwide protests.

The court’s decision to suspend its activities appeared unlikely to have any immediate impact on Morsi’s drive to get the new constitution passed in a national referendum on Dec 15. Three people have been killed and hundreds hurt in protests and counter-demonstrations over Morsi’s decree.

At least 200,000 of Morsi’s supporters attended a rally at Cairo University on Saturday. His opponents are staging a sit-in in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the cradle of the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak in Feb 2011.

Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, which propelled him to power in a June election, hope to end the crisis by pushing through the constitution hastily adopted by the drafting assembly on Friday.

The next day, the assembly handed the text to Morsi, who called the referendum and urged Egyptians to vote.

“The Muslim Brotherhood is determined to go ahead with its own plans regardless of everybody else,” said Hassan Nafaa, a professor of political science at Cairo University. “There is no compromise on the horizon.”

Outside the Supreme Constitutional Court, Muslim Brotherhood supporters rallied behind the referendum date. “Yes to the constitution,” declared a banner held aloft by one protester. Chants demanded the “purging of the judiciary”.

The interior minister told the head of the court that the building was accessible and the protests were peaceful, according a statement from the ministry.

The protest reflected the deep suspicion harboured by Egypt’s Islamists towards a court they see as a vestige of the Mubarak era. The same court ruled in June to dissolve the Muslim Brotherhood-led lower house of parliament.

Since then, several legal cases have challenged the legitimacy of the upper house and the 100-member constituent assembly that wrote the constitution.

While the Islamists’ critics, including representatives of the Christian minority, have accused the Brotherhood of trying to hijack the constitution, investors appear to have seen Morsi’s moves as a sign of stability.

They were also relieved that Saturday’s mass Islamist protest went off calmly.

Morsi’s opponents warn of deeper polarisation ahead.


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