Protests by President Mohamed Morsi’s Islamist supporters forced Egypt's highest court to adjourn its work indefinitely Sunday, intensifying the confrontation between the 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, Reuters reported.
"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," the court said in a statement disseminated by the official Middle East News Agency. "It is a very dark day in the history of the Egyptian judiciary."
Later Sunday evening, sources in the Judges Club told Al-Ahram that members had agreed also to boycott the constitutional referendum Morsi has called for Dec. 15 and would refuse to supervise the voting process, further escalating the showdown.
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Several hundred Morsi supporters had protested outside the court through Saturday night ahead of a session expected to examine the legality of parliament's upper house and the assembly that drafted the new constitution, both of them Islamist-controlled.
The cases have cast a legal shadow over Morsi's efforts to chart a way out of the crisis ignited by his Nov. 22 decree that expanded his powers – temporarily, he says -- and led to nationwide protests.
The chairman of the assembly that drafted the constitution handed Morsi the final draft in a televised ceremony Saturday during which the president announced the date of the referendum as Dec. 15 as hundreds of thousands of his supporters rallied, The Wall Street Journal reported.
"I tell our great people, the opponent before the supporter, help me with all your strength to fulfill the responsibility that you have entrusted me with to manage the nation's affairs," Morsi said. "This responsibility makes it imperative in front of God, you, the Egyptian nation and the world that I forge ahead and not hesitate to carry out the will of this nation."
Three people have been killed and hundreds wounded in protests and counter-demonstrations over the Nov. 22 decree.
At least 200,000 of the president's supporters attended a rally at Cairo University Saturday while opponents continued an open-ended sit-in in Tahrir Square.
On Sunday, in response to Morsi's move, 18 secular and liberal parties, along with youth movements that led the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak, warned the president: "We are sending a final warning to Dr. Mohammed Morsi, who was elected as legitimate and democratic president of the country that his legitimacy is eroding and diminishing with his policies and actions that are biased toward his party and group."
The signatories said they were organizing a large demonstration dubbed "the last chance" outside the presidential palace on Tuesday to pressure Morsi to rescind his decree and postpone the referendum.
The alliance includes the Constitution Party, the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, the Free Egyptians Party, the National Front for Justice and Democracy, the 6 April youth movement, the Democratic Front and the Kefaya movement, Al Ahram reported. They say the constitution is illegitimate because they say it is the product of a process dominated by the Islamists and paves the way for an Islamist takeover of the country.
Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, which propelled him to power in the June election, hope to end the crisis and consolidate their power by pushing through the new constitution hastily adopted by the drafting assembly on Friday.
"The Muslim Brotherhood is determined to go ahead with its own plans regardless of everybody else. There is no compromise on the horizon," Hassan Nafaa, a professor of political science at Cairo University, told Reuters.
Outside the Supreme Constitutional Court, 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.
Morsi believes that securing approval for the new constitution in a popular referendum will override arguments on the legality of the constituent assembly, as well as controversy over the text it worked through the night to finish on Friday.
It will also supersede the Nov. 22 decree that prompted international concern and a rebellion by sections of the judiciary that saw it as a threat to their role. The decree shielded Morsi from judicial oversight.
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 harbinger of stability. They were also relieved that Saturday's mass Islamist protest went off calmly.
The main stock market index, which lost a tenth of its value in response to Morsi's decree, rallied more than 2 percent when the market opened on Sunday.