CAIRO — Egypt’s highest court indefinitely postponed a highly anticipated ruling Sunday, leaving the nation’s upcoming referendum on the new constitution in a state of uncertainty and putting off for now a direct confrontation with President Mohammed Morsi over his claim of judicial immunity.
The judges of the Supreme Constitutional Court claimed that they could not convene because pro-Morsi demonstrators who’d gathered in front of the court’s building had threatened them and blocked their entry. Members of the public, however, were able to enter the building. The court did not explain why it could not have ruled on the case somewhere else. In a statement, the judges said they had to suspend their session because to go on would subject them to “psychological or physical pressure.”
The court’s session had been widely anticipated as a showdown between Morsi and the country’s judges over Morsi’s Thanksgiving Day declaration that the nation’s judiciary had no power to rule on his decrees. Since then, the judiciary and Morsi have engaged in a game of chicken over who decides legal matters here that has divided not only the government but polarized the nation.
On Sunday, Ahmed El Zind, president of Egypt's Judge's Club, which represents a large group of judges nationwide, announced that its members would not conduct the referendum, now scheduled for Dec. 15.
Opposed to Morsi’s decree are members of the judiciary, many of whom went on strike, and secular, liberal and Christian politicians and their supporters, who’ve gathered by the tens of thousands in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to voice their dismay.
On the other side is the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group through which Morsi rose to prominence. On Saturday, the Brotherhood turned out hundreds of thousands of demonstrators in support of Morsi. The demonstrators outside the court building Sunday also were Brotherhood sympathizers.
The court was supposed to rule on whether the Brotherhood-dominated constitutional assembly, which drafted the proposed constitution, was legal; the court earlier in the year had ordered the dissolution of the Parliament that had named the assembly. Had the court ruled that the assembly was illegal, it would have invalidated the proposed constitution, canceled the Dec. 15 referendum Morsi scheduled Saturday on the document, and forced Morsi to name a new assembly.
Supporters justify Morsi’s declaration as the only way to rid the drafting of the constitution from undue influence from holdovers of deposed President Hosni Mubarak, who appointed all of the court’s members.
Had the court ruled against Morsi, it was unclear how its order would have been enforced. The country’s military, which was instrumental in pushing Mubarak from power, has shown no interest in involving itself in the current standoff.
With no ruling and no sense of when it could rule, Egyptians are uncertain about whether the scheduled Dec. 15 constitutional referendum will happen and if enough judges will end their strike to conduct it.
In a statement explaining its decision not to rule, the court called what had taken place “a black day in the history of the Egyptian judiciary.” Tahany El Gibaly, the court’s vice president, said that the police did not protect the judges from Morsi supporters, some of whom threatened to assassinate the judges, according an article posted on the state television website. El Gibaly also called the court’s inability to rule the beginning of terrorism, the website reported.
“As judges approached the court in the morning, they found protesters surrounding the building, blocking its gates, climbing its fence and chanting anti-judge slogans inciting people against [the judges]. Judges couldn’t access the court, as this would have endangered them due to the unstable security condition,” the court’s statement said. “The Supreme Constitutional Court’s judges have no choice other than declaring their inability to perform their sacred duties in such an atmosphere full of hatred and the desire for revenge.”
Opponents vowed to keep speaking up against Morsi’s declaration and the upcoming constitutional referendum. They scheduled a march to the presidential palace for Tuesday, and several news organizations said they would not publish or broadcast Tuesday as a form of protest.
The Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi vowed to go forward, believing that the approval of the constitution will make the court’s eventual ruling irrelevant.
“If the constitution is passed then that is it. There is no authority above the authority of the people. The ruling won’t have any value,” said Amr Darrag, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and the constitutional assembly, outlining the planned approach in an interview with McClatchy last month.
So far, it appeared that Morsi has enough support to push his position, though his standing has eroded in the five months since he took the oath of office as Egypt’s first democratically elected president.
On Sunday, the Egyptian Center for Public Opinion Research released a poll of 2,008 Egyptians that found Morsi had a 57 percent approval rating. That was down, however, from 78 percent after Morsi’s first 100 days, according to the state news agency. The poll was conducted Nov. 28-29.
There was no sign of give in Morsi’s position. Protesters remained camped outside the court Sunday night. The Brotherhood’s political party, the Freedom and Justice Party, urged them to allow judges and employees to enter the court but did not discourage them from remaining.
McClatchy special correspondent Amina Ismail contributed to this report.
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