Egypt’s top court said on Sunday it has suspended its work indefinitely to protest “psychological pressures,” while Egyptian judges refused to oversee a referendum due in less than two weeks on a controversial new constitution drafted by an Islamist-dominated panel.
The move by Supreme Constitutional Court and the Judges Club sharply upthe 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 Mohammed Mursi opposed to their ruling on the legality of the panel that drew up the draft charter.
“(The judges) announce the suspension of the court sessions until the time when they can continue their message and rulings in cases without any psychological and material pressures,” the court said in a statement.
Judges traditionally supervise elections in Egypt, giving them a seal of legitimacy, but they have been openly at loggerheads with Mursi since he issued a decree last month placing both his decisions and the charter panel beyond their scrutiny.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Constitutional Court’s announcement Sunday comes hours after it postponed a ruling on the legitimacy of an Islamist-dominated panel that drafted the disputed new constitution for the country.
Several thousand supporters of Mursi have gathered outside the Nile-side courthouse in Cairo to prevent the judges from entering.
The court said in a statement it cannot work in a “climate filled with hatred” and that its judges could not enter the courthouse Sunday because they feared for their safety.
The judges also were expected to rule to on the legitimacy of another Islamist-dominated upper house of parliament, or the Shura Council.
The move will be seen as an escalation in the standoff between the judiciary and President Mohamed Mursi who last week issued a decree expanding his powers and rendering his decisions immune from judicial oversight.
The court, which looks into the constitutionality of laws and is made up of 19 judges, was due on Sunday to examine the legality of an Islamist-dominated panel that drafted the new constitution.
Hundreds of Mursi supporters had spent the night outside the courthouse, forcing judges to delay the potential scrapping of the panel
Islamists, many wrapped in blankets and carrying posters of Mursi, spent the night outside the courthouse and blocked off a main road that runs along the Nile leading up to it, trying to stop the judges from entering.
In its statement, the court expressed its “utmost sorrow and pain” over the “moral assassination of its judges.”
The new charter has become the focal point of Egypt’s biggest political crisis since Mursi was elected in June, squaring Islamist forces against secular-leaning opponents.
The court had been due to rule on the legality of the Islamist-dominated constituent assembly, which drafted a new constitution that Mursi announced on Saturday would go to a popular referendum on Dec. 15.
Any ruling by the court would have escalated the crisis with Mursi, defying his presidential decree barring any judicial body from dissolving the assembly, which adopted the draft constitution amid a boycott by liberals and Christians.
The Nov. 22 decree sparked the current crisis, with the constitution, which had been due for more deliberation, being rushed through days later amid popular unrest.
The disputed charter — has been criticized for paving the way to a strict interpretation of Islamic law and failing to secure key rights — prompted mass rival rallies by Mursi opponents and Islamists.
Opposition protesters announced they will rally outside the presidential palace on Tuesday to protest against the Dec. 15 referendum on Egypt’s controversial draft constitution.
The rally was dubbed “the final warning,” in a joint statement from youth groups which have been organizing protests, the official news agency MENA reported.