Egyptian judges refused on Sunday to oversee a referendum due in less than two weeks on a controversial new constitution drafted by an Islamist-dominated panel, sharply upping the stakes of a standoff with the Islamist president.
The announcement by the Judges Club, which represents judges nationwide, came after Egypt’s top court began an open-ended strike in the face of a mass protest outside the courthouse by supporters of President Mohamed Morsi opposed to their ruling on the legality of the panel that drew up the draft charter.
Judges traditionally supervise elections in Egypt, giving them a seal of legitimacy, but they have been openly at loggerheads with Morsi since he issued a decree last month placing both his decisions and the charter panel beyond their scrutiny.
The standoff has polarised Egyptian opinion and sparked the biggest political crisis since Morsi assumed power in June as the country’s first ever civilian president and its first elected leader since the overthrow of veteran strongman Hosni Mubarak in a popular uprising early last year.
“It has been agreed by all the judges of Egypt and the Judges Clubs outside the capital not to supervise a referendum on the draft constitution and to boycott it,” the head of the Judges Club, Ahmed al-Zind, said.
The charter, adopted by the panel on Friday in the face of a boycott by liberals and Christians, has been criticised for paving the way to a strict interpretation of Islamic law and for failing to secure key rights.
It is due to be put to a referendum on December 15 under an accelerated timetable for a transition to a new political system being championed by Morsi and his Islamist backers in what they say is an effort to turn the page on the turmoil since Mubarak’s overthrow.
A judicial boycott of the referendum could further cast doubt on its legitimacy as the opposition prepares to escalate protests against the charter and Morsi’s adoption of sweeping powers that critics describe as dictatorial.
Morsi’s supporters accuse the judges of being elitist holdouts from the Mubarak era and of standing in the way of public support for the Islamists expressed in repeated votes since the strongman’s ouster early last year.
“The will of the people is stronger than the will of a few judges,” said Ismail Ahmed, 39, as he joined protesters outside the Supreme Constitutional Court ahead of its threatened ruling on the charter panel.
A senior Islamist who helped draft the new constitution attacked the constitutional court as “highly politicised” and said liberal opponents had been unwilling to compromise on the charter.
Amr Darrag of the Freedom and Justice Party, political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, insisted that “the amount of freedoms in terms of rights and freedoms for people, for minorities... are unprecedented in this constitution.”
He said women were guaranteed equal rights by the charter, adding that the constitution’s role was not to change culture. “(This is) a culture not willing to have a woman as a president,” he said, referring to a newspaper poll.
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.
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 judges responded by calling an “administrative delay” to Sunday’s session, prompting the protesters to head home from the courthouse, an AFP correspondent reported.
A ruling by the court on Sunday would have defied Morsi’s presidential decree that barred any judicial body from dissolving the constituent assembly.
The November 22 decree sparked popular unrest, with the constitution, which had been due for more deliberation, being rushed through days later.
The National Rescue Front – a coalition of Morsi opponents led by Mohamed ElBaradei, the former UN nuclear watchdog chief; ex-Arab League chief Amr Mussa; and former presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi – has urged its supporters to keep up the momentum of the protest movement.
They called for a mass rally outside the presidential palace on Tuesday to protest against the referendum, the constitution and Morsi’s new powers, in a march they dubbed “the final warning”.