An Egyptian court on Tuesday postponed issuing a key ruling on whether a Muslim Brotherhood-led panel tasked with writing Egypt’s new constitution is legal, following protests outside the courtroom by the supporters of the Islamist movement.
The tensions were a sign of the stakes in the case, which will effectively determine who oversees the process for writing the constitution - the Brotherhood or the military. That has made the case the latest front in their struggle over power since a Brotherhood member won last month’s presidential election.
The current 100-member constituent assembly is led by the Brotherhood and other Islamists. If Cairo’s High Administrative Court orders it disbanded, the military - which took power after last year’s ouster of Hosni Mubarak - would create the new panel.
A verdict disbanding the panel would be the latest in a series of blows the Brotherhood has suffered from the judicial system. Earlier court rulings dissolved a previous constituent assembly, also dominated by Islamists, and dissolved the Brotherhood-led parliament last month.
Overwhelmed by the shouting and jostling, the presiding judge suspended the hearing and moved to another courtroom to try to restore order. But many lawyers left as the disruption dragged on and the day ended with little progress.
“This court has always taken pride that its chambers are open to the public,” Judge Abdel Salam el-Naggar told the court. “What happened in that chamber - is such terrorism appropriate?”
The anger on display in the courtroom underscores widespread frustration at a chaotic and faltering democratic transition made possible by last year’s overthrow of autocratic leader Hosni Mubarak.
Despite his election victory in June, which ended more than 16 months of army rule, President Mohammed Mursi has yet to form a cabinet and there is no fully functioning parliament or constitution for Egypt, deepening the sense of turmoil that has pushed the economy to the brink of a balance of payments and budget crisis.
Judges have dismissed accusations that they are influenced by the military and opinion is split on whether the Cairo administrative court will strike down the constituent assembly.
The divisions were on full view at the courthouse.
“Down, down with military rule,” cried Brotherhood supporters who want the constituent assembly to continue its work.
That drew an angry response from their opponents. “Down, down with the rule of the Supreme Guide,” shouted a woman, referring to the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohamed Badie.
As the mayhem deepened, lawyers called for the proceedings to be suspended.
“This isn’t justice,” said lawyer Nabiel Gabriel. “I am holding Mursi personally accountable for this chaos. He has a responsibility to establish order.”
A power struggle unleashed by the overthrow of Mubarak in a popular uprising last year has shifted from the streets to the ballot box and now the courts as Islamists exert pressure on the judiciary for fear the army-led establishment will use it to sideline them from power.
The period of army rule has sown confusion over the primacy of state institutions and the judiciary is often exasperated by the complexity of the cases it must consider.
Beside the constituent assembly, the judges were also trying to study appeals against decrees by the military and one from Mursi that recalled parliament after the generals dissolved it.
On its Facebook page, the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) said the deliberations would be “decisive.”
Yet there was little hope that the rulings, when they come, would end the institutional wrangling and endless court challenges that have been delaying Egypt’s return to stability.
Brotherhood supporters said no one could overrule elected institutions.
“Who elected the constitutional assembly? Parliament. And who elected parliament? The people. We are the ones to determine our fate,” said 20-year-old protester Ahmed Mohamed el-Sayed, an FJP member.
The court closed proceedings with a decision to look into lawyer demands to change the judges reviewing the constituent assembly case.
It also ruled that challenges to an army decree dissolving parliament be sent to a judicial panel for review, and said it would rule on Thursday on a decree by the army giving itself legislative powers and limiting the remit of the president.