Egypt -- A Country Divided: Judges Refuse to Participate in Referendum on Constitution

President Mohammed Morsi's battle with Egypt's judiciary and opposition groups escalated Sunday as hundreds of his Islamist supporters besieged the country's highest court to prevent it from ruling on the legitimacy of a panel that created a draft constitution.

Pictured: Morsi backers surrounded the Supreme Constitutional Court on Sunday. Later, a judges' group said it would boycott a constitutional referendum.
The court said it was suspending its sessions until the safety of its judges and personnel can be guaranteed.

The rising tensions come after Mr. Morsi set a mid-December date for a referendum on the contested constitution, which contains several references to Islamic Shariah law, as both sides showed no sign of backing down.

Later on Sunday, the board of the Judges' Club, the largest association of judges, held a meeting at which they agreed not to participate in the constitution's referendum, according to its chairman Ahmed el-Zind.

"It is a very dark day in the history of the Egyptian judiciary," the Supreme Constitutional Court said.

The developments represent the latest installment in Mr. Morsi's standoff with the judiciary and the opposition. The divisions are seen by many as the gravest threat to Egypt's fragile democratic transition since street protests toppled former strongman Hosni Mubarak in February 2011 in one of the most closely watched uprisings of the "Arab Spring."

"Egypt on the brink of a volcano," said a Sunday headline in Al-Masry al-Youm, one of the country's main dailies.

The latest wrangling began on Nov. 22, when Mr. Morsi issued an edict which, among other things, shielded all his decisions and the Islamist-dominated panel drafting the constitution known as the Constituent Assembly from judicial review. The assembly last week rushed to approve a constitution in a marathon session, despite a boycott by more than a quarter of its members representing secular groups and churches in Egypt.

The assembly's chairman handed Mr. Morsi the final draft of the constitution in a televised ceremony on Saturday, during which the president announced a Dec. 15 date for the referendum as hundreds of thousands of his Islamist supporters rallied in Cairo. Most were bused in from the provinces.

Secular and liberal parties in the opposition, as well as youth movements and others, have rejected the draft constitution and Mr. Morsi's edict. They view the moves as a blatant attempt by Islamist parties, led by the Muslim Brotherhood, to implement their Islamic agenda and consolidate their hold on power in the Arab world's most populous and strategic state.

Siding with the opposition groups are a majority of the country's judges, many of whom were appointed by Mr. Mubarak's regime and who have been on strike since Nov. 25 to protest Mr. Morsi's edict.

For their part, both Mr. Morsi and his Islamist allies see the opposition's stance as a conspiracy--fueled by former regime loyalists and businessmen, corrupt judges and unnamed foreign states--to undermine the president and his government, who were the product of what they say was "the fairest election" in the country's history.

So far, the anti-Morsi camp has remained firm in its opposition. "We are sending a final warning to Dr. Mohammed Morsi who was elected as a 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," said a statement issued by 18 secular and liberal parties as well as youth movements that played a pivotal role in the anti-Mubarak uprising.

The Wall Street Journal
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