Chaos in Egypt as courts strike

CAIRO — Courts and factions engaged in a frantic last-minute scramble on Wednesday in a struggle for power over the culmination of Egypt’s ­political transition after the ouster of Hosni Mubarak. The two highest appellate courts went on strike, the Supreme Constitutional Court accused the president of blackmail, the Islamist leaders of the constitutional assembly rushed to complete the charter by the end of Thursday, and the Muslim Brotherhood called for a major demonstration on Saturday.

The dueling marked an escalation in a two-front war pitting Egypt’s Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi, against the country’s courts on one side against a galvanized opposition in the streets and on the other that drew hundreds of thousands of Egyptians to Tahrir Square a day earlier in the biggest demonstration against Morsi since his election in June.

The uproar was set off by Morsi’s attempt six days ago to declare his own edicts above judicial scrutiny and thus eliminate the last check on his power until the approval of a new constitution. But Morsi’s gambit and the ensuing backlash are all aimed at the looming deadline of Sunday, when the Supreme Constitutional Court is expected to issue a ruling that could dissolve the constitutional assembly and once again upend Egypt’s chaotic transition.


Morsi has said he meant to head off the possibility that the Supreme Constitutional Court might dissolve the constitutional assembly before it can complete its work. Courts have already dissolved the recently elected Parliament, as well as an earlier constitutional assembly. And while some judges on the constitutional court are esteemed as impartial jurists, its members were all picked by Mubarak. Some are considered political loyalists.

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The constitutional assembly’s announcement of its intent to wrap up a draft constitution by Thursday has the potential to mitigate the institutional battle but inflame the political standoff. The assembly may produce a document that could be sent to a referendum even if the court dissolves the assembly, unless the court seeks to strike down the draft along with the assembly. Or the court might refer the fate of the assembly to another panel, prolonging the uncertainty.

But the assembly’s rush is also stirring accusations that it is now letting politics hasten the drafting of a document intended as the definitive social contract to last for years to come. Many of the non-Islamists on the 100-member panel — about a quarter, according to the best estimates — have already walked out, damaging hopes that it might be presented as a product of consensus.

Many have complained that the Islamists running the assembly were closing off debates in an attempt to push the document through before the deadline.

Hossam El-Gheriani, the chief of the assembly, appealed Wednesday for the boycotters to return for the final consideration on Thursday. ‘‘Come back to us so that we welcome you and you can be our partner in issuing the constitution,’’ he said. Thursday ‘‘will be a wonderful day in the history of this assembly, and everybody should receive the honor of this glorious day.’’


But the Islamist majority in the assembly could pass the charter on its own, and probably pass it in a public referendum as well. Advisers to Morsi, a former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, have said they would be willing to do so.

They argue that the liberals and others who left the assembly recently had influenced it before they quit, and they suspect some of seeking to spoil the assembly’s work.