Egypt's top judges suspended work indefinitely after Islamist supporters of President Mohammed Morsi swarmed the highest court Sunday, chanting "We will not leave!" shouting insults and blocking the judges from entering on the day they had been expected to dissolve the country's Islamist-dominated constitution-writing panel.
In a statement from the Supreme Constitutional Court that underlined the increasingly personal conflict between Morsi and the judiciary, the judges described a campaign of "moral assassination" against them and said an "environment charged with hatred and malice and the need for revenge" led to Sunday's "appalling and shameful scene."
The 19 judges — appointed during the regime of President Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted nearly two years ago — said they would suspend work until they were able to continue "without being subject to moral or physical pressure."
It was another day in Egypt's rocky, emotionally charged democratic transition, one in which the revolutionaries who drove out Mubarak are increasingly divided, with Islamists on one side and liberals, secularists — and, increasingly, the judiciary — on the other in the quest to forge a modern identity.
Morsi, who is backed by the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, has been in a power struggle with the judiciary since his election in June. The high court dissolved the democratically elected Islamist-majority parliament just as Morsi was taking office, severely curtailing his power. And the judges had been widely expected on Sunday to dissolve the constitution-drafting assembly, dominated by Islamists.
But Morsi has pushed back hard, issuing a constitutional decree Nov. 22 that places nearly all his actions temporarily beyond judicial review and pushing the constitution-writing panel to approve the nation's new charter Friday.
Among its many provisions, the charter shrinks the number of judges on the high court from 19 to 11. Despite large opposition protests to his moves all week, Morsi on Saturday called for a Dec. 15 national referendum on the charter, a vote that will require the supervision of the judiciary, which he seems only to be enraging further.
Muslim Brotherhood officials staged a massive demonstration Saturday to show support for Morsi but said they had not ordered Sunday's protest outside the high court. But members of the intensely hierarchical organization rarely take such steps independently, and several protesters outside the court Sunday openly identified themselves as members of the group.
Heba Morayef, Egypt director in the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch, said that Sunday's confrontation was all the more perplexing and distressing because Morsi had seemed in recent days to be winning his battle with the judiciary.
"To choose to do that at a time like this, it's not just adding insult to injury, this is a full onslaught," she said. "Intimidation of judges is an extremely serious matter. For Morsi's party to be involved in that is a terrifying precedent. We do not want to get into a situation where those who criticize the president have to fear for their lives."
Morayef said that although the judiciary needs reform, Morsi's tactics were counterproductive in achieving a goal that most of the country supports.
Khaled Abu Bakr, a legal expert with the International Union of Lawyers, said Sunday's demonstration was essentially a crime.
"The president and the Interior Ministry should protect judicial institutions and enable the judges to do their jobs," he said.
Abu Bakr added that Morsi could have easily called off the protests outside the court.
"There is a battle between the constitutional court and the president," he said. "Even the head of the constitution-drafting assembly session said that we are practicing constitutional revenge."
The judges' decision to suspend work does not automatically prevent them from supervising the Dec. 15 constitutional referendum. For that to happen, the Supreme Judicial Council — the administrative body for Egyptian courts — would have to issue a decision prohibiting its members from supervising the vote, Abu Bakr said.
If the judiciary standoff continues to worsen and the council does issue such a decision, Morsi would face the dilemma of how to legally supervise the constitutional vote he has called for. Abu Bakr said one option would be for Morsi to issue yet another decree, circumventing the courts and ordering a different authority to oversee the vote.
"We are faced with the new phenomenon in Egyptian society," Abu Bakr said. "Egyptian society is divided in the first eight months of the president's rule."
Ingy Hassieb contributed to this report.