- - Sunday, December 2, 2012

CAIRO — Egypt’s political crisis deepened over the weekend, as judges shut down the country’s highest court Sunday after crowds of Islamists backing the government surrounded the courthouse.

The judicial showdown followed massive protests in Cairo on Saturday when 100,000 people rallied in support of President Mohammed Morsi and demonstrations late last week when more than 200,000 opponents protested his seizure of vast powers and a draft constitution they fear will undermine civil rights.

On Sunday, supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood kept judges of the Supreme Constitutional Court from entering their courthouse, where they were expected to rule on the legitimacy of a committee charged with drafting Egypt’s new constitution.

“It is the Egyptian judiciary’s blackest day on record,” the court said in a written statement.

The court announced it was suspending its work until further notice to “protest psychological and physical pressure” from the Islamists, calling the scene of screaming protesters outside the courthouse, one of “shame and disgrace.”

The constitution was rushed through the drafting committee, called Constituent Assembly, on Friday in an attempt to pre-empt a court ruling. Voters will have chance to approve or reject the proposed charter in Dec. 15 referendum, Mr. Morsi announced Saturday.

Mazen Hassan, a political analyst in Cairo, described the country as now more split than ever before. Even if the constitution sails through the referendum, it will only make efforts to reconcile differences much more difficult, he said.

“[That] will be the major task of the coming months,” Mr. Hassan said. “Morsi or any president cannot rule such a divided country easily …”

Mr. Hassan added that he expects to see escalating tension and unrest in the next few weeks.

“The hope is that this does not really lead to clashes or violence between the two camps, but I think neither camp will back down or de-escalate or concede defeat,” he said.

Opposition groups have already announced they will march on the presidential palace in Cairo late Tuesday afternoon as a “final warning” to Mr. Morsi to rescind decrees he issued last month that greatly expanded his presidential powers. The opposition also wants a new Constituent Assembly with members that better represent the country’s political parties.

“This is a second revolution,” said Aysha Selim, who has raised funds to provide buses, tents and provisions to thousands protesters who came from around the country to Cairo’s central Tahrir Square last week and over the weekend.

“It’s a joke,” she added, referring to the “nonrepresentative” manner in which the constitution was drafted. “[It] is invalid.”

Mr. Mori’s supporters claim that the protesters in Tahrir Square backed the regime of former President Hosni Mubarak, who was overthrown in an Arab Spring uprising last year.

“I believe that 90 percent of the people in Tahrir are remnants of the former regime. They want to destroy this country,” said lawyer Mahmoud Awda.

“I support the president’s decisions. We must give him time.”

The Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Constituent Assembly, created in June, was already running into trouble when the political showdown escalated almost two weeks ago.

Secular and Christian Copt representatives walked out of the 100-member assembly in November after accusing Islamists of creating a draft charter that would undermine civil liberties and the rights of women and minorities.

Then on Nov. 22, Mr. Morsi issued decrees that vastly extended his powers. The action granted him, the upper house of parliament, known as the Shura Council, and the Constituent Assembly immunity from the judiciary.

He said the measures were necessary to keep the country moving forward in its political transition, and that more delays in drafting a constitution would set the country back.

Mr. Morsi, who in June became Egypt’s first freely elected president, told the country last week that “he will not allow anyone to derail the transition.”

The assembly worked feverishly until dawn Friday to approve 236 items in the draft constitution.

The new charter has secularists and human rights officials worried that it relies too much on Shariah, or Islamic law, and will restrict free speech and other civil liberties and leave minorities and women vulnerable. For example, it forbids “insults to persons and to prophets” and demands respect for “religion and family values.”

Critics also complain that the draft made concessions to the military by continuing to allow civilians to be tried in military courts. Some ultra-orthodox Muslims complained that it didn’t go far enough in its use of Shariah law.

The high court judges Sunday were expected to have ruled on the legality of the draft constitution and the Constituent Assembly, after the liberal and Coptic Christians members walked out.

However, the judges suspended their work after a crowd of hundreds of Mr. Mori’s supporters blocked the entrance to the courthouse.

“The judges of the Supreme Constitutional Court were left with no choice but to announce to the glorious people of Egypt that they cannot carry out their sacred mission in this charged atmosphere,” the judges said in a statement, saying they feared for their safety.

Most judges and prosecutors in the country have already been on strike for a week.

Analysts said the conflict is nothing less than a battle for the future of Egypt.

“You have an ideological confrontation, not just regarding the constitution, but on the nature of the state and the shape of the society,” says Tarek Osman, author of “Egypt on the Brink.”

“The liberal forces believe that the Brotherhood is effectively trying to ‘Islamize’ the Egyptian society, a process which they consider an attack on a very rich and varied Egyptian heritage. The Islamists, led by the Brotherhood, believe that their ideas speak for a significant majority in Egypt.”

Jabeen Bhatti reported from Berlin. Daria Solovieva and Marwa Nasser in Cairo contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.