CAIRO (AFP) – Egypt’s top court began an open-ended strike on Sunday in what it called a “black day” for the judiciary after supporters of President Mohamed Morsi blocked the courthouse ahead of a key ruling, amid a tense standoff between the president and the judges.
The Supreme Constitutional Court said it would “suspend work for an indefinite period… and until there is no more psychological and material pressure.”
Hundreds of pro-Morsi demonstrators blocked off a main road that runs along the Nile to the courthouse and surrounded entrances to its precincts.
The court was due to rule on the legality of an Islamist-dominated panel that drew up a controversial draft constitution.
The new charter, which has become the focal point of Egypt’s biggest political crisis since Morsi was elected in June, is to be put to a referendum set for December 15.
“The will of the people is stronger than the will of a few judges,” said demonstrator Ismail Ahmed, 39, alluding to the accusations of Morsi supporters that the judiciary remains dominated by holdouts from the era of Hosni Mubarak, the veteran strongman ousted early last year.
The judges responded by calling an “administrative delay” to Sunday’s session, prompting the protesters to head home from the courthouse, an AFP correspondent reported.
An interior ministry official denied it was impossible for judges to enter the courthouse, saying some judiciary officials had in fact got in thanks to security forces guarding the entrances.
A ruling by the court on Sunday would have defied Morsi’s presidential decree that barred any judicial body from dissolving the constituent assembly, which adopted the draft charter in the face of a boycott by liberals and Christians.
The November 22 decree sparked popular unrest, with the constitution, which had been due for more deliberation, being rushed through days later amid the commotion.
Opposition groups said they would rally on Tuesday outside the presidential palace to protest against the referendum, the constitution and Morsi’s new powers, in a march dubbed “the final warning”.
The controversial charter — which has been criticised for paving the way to a strict interpretation of Islamic law and failing to secure key rights — prompted rival rallies by Morsi opponents and supporters.
Hundreds of thousands of Islamist protesters gathered on Saturday in support of Morsi, his sweeping powers and the draft constitution, a day after crowds thronged to Cairo’s Tahrir Square to denounce his “dictatorial” decree.
“One nation, two peoples,” read the front page of Sunday’s edition of the Al-Shuruq newspaper, while Al-Masri al-Youm ran with “Egypt at the mouth of a volcano.”
The Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters have branded the anti-Islamist opposition enemies of the 2011 revolution, and Sunday’s protesters chanted against secular and liberal opposition leaders.
The National Rescue Front — a coalition of opponents led by Mohamed ElBaradei, the former UN nuclear watchdog chief; ex-Arab League chief Amr Mussa; and former presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi — has called on opponents of the decree to keep up the momentum of the protest movement.
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have raised concerns about the draft charter.
On Thursday, Morsi stressed his new powers would expire as soon as the constitution has been ratified, a point Islamists have repeatedly made in his favour.
In 2011, the Brotherhood and the secular-leaning opposition stood side by side in Tahrir Square as they fought to bring down Mubarak and his regime.
But since Mubarak’s downfall in February 2011, the Islamist movement has been accused of monopolising power.