Egypt’s highest court suspended its work after hundreds of President Mohamed Mursi’s Islamist supporters protested outside the building against a scheduled hearing dealing with the legitimacy of a panel that wrote the draft constitution.
The Supreme Constitutional Court said today it couldn’t operate in such an environment and would suspend its sessions until justices can again work without “any psychological and material pressure.” It didn’t say when it would reconvene.
Mursi’s supporters camped overnight by the court in Cairo, hours after the president set Dec. 15 as the date for a national referendum on a draft charter. His announcement followed more than a week of mass protests by opponents demanding the dissolution of the panel, which is dominated by Islamists. His backers countered yesterday, gathering tens of thousands in support of the president and the draft.
“The judges of the Supreme Constitutional Court have no choice but to announce to the great people of Egypt that they are unable to carry out their sacred duty in such a charged environment, filled with hatred, desire for vengeance and fabricated, imaginary animosity,” the court said in a statement.
Dozens of riot police vans were parked outside the court amid a heavy security presence as chants rang out against the judges.
“We have been forcefully prevented from entering, and there were threats of murder and of burning the building,” Justice Tahani el-Gebali, who was among those singled out in the chants, said by phone. “We have received security information not to go because our lives would be in danger.”
Egypt’s benchmark EGX 30 Index of stocks rose 1.8 percent at the close in Cairo, the biggest increase in almost a week in the first day of trading since Mursi set the date for the referendum. Protests over the past week forced the market into a 12 percent slide, the most since March 2011.
The rallies yesterday by Islamist groups including the Muslim Brotherhood, which fielded Mursi for the presidency, came as secularists and youth activists demanded he rescind a Nov. 22 decree protecting the panel and the parliament’s upper house from court challenges. Two of Egypt’s top courts suspended work and several judges and prosecutors followed suit.
“Constitutional court intimidated and under siege by pro-Mursi protesters,” Nobel Laureate and opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei said on his Twitter account today. “Judiciary almost entirely crippled. Where are we headed?”
With tensions running high near the court, Saad el-Katatni, the head of the Brotherhood’s political arm, called for calm and asked people not to impede the work of the justices, the state-run Ahram Gate website reported.
The hearing today was meant to deal with the legitimacy of the constitutional panel and the parliament’s upper house. An earlier incarnation of the committee was dissolved, while the lower house was also disbanded following court rulings.
On the main road running alongside the Nile, across from the high court, traffic was snarled early today and tensions flared. A tank and an armored personnel carrier were parked at the entrance of Maadi, an upscale Cairo neighborhood near where the court is located.
“You Brotherhood are the reason for this,” a clean-shaven man yelled at a bearded motorist, who snapped back: “You just want to lead us into hell.”
About a quarter of the panel’s members, including Coptic Church representatives, withdrew before the draft constitution was completed, complaining that Islamists were dominating the process and the document wouldn’t reflect Egypt’s diverse national interests. The panel approved the draft after a 16-hour session ending early Nov. 30.
Former Arab League chief Amr Moussa called for an emergency meeting of the National Salvation Front, a coalition of several opposition groups and figures including ElBaradei, to discuss the referendum, the state-run Middle East News Agency reported today.
ElBaradei’s Dostour, or Constitution, Party said in an e-mailed statement Mursi had “ignored large segments of the Egyptian society” that has been protesting the “farcical way the draft had been completed.”
In a speech yesterday, Mursi defended the charter, saying it was born out of “the January 25 revolution” against Mubarak. He said the nation was “thirsty for stability” and that it was time “to move from confrontation and differences toward productive work.”
The president also tried to ease tensions, telling those who withdrew from the panel their contribution wouldn’t be forgotten.