Row in Egypt court over constitution

Tue, Jul 17, 2012, 01:00

Brawls broke out in an Egyptian courtroom as judges prepared to issue rulings today that will either bolster the country's new president Mohamed Morsi, or undermine him in his power struggle with the military.

With his allies in the Muslim Brotherhood hailing a "decisive" day in the country's democratic transition, hundreds of Morsi supporters came to protest at the courthouse, accusing the generals of using the judiciary to undermine his authority.

With opinion split on how the Cairo administrative court would rule, tension was high as lawyers, protesters and members of the public pushed and elbowed one other.

"Down, down with military rule," shouted supporters of the Brotherhood, drawing an angry response from their opponents.

"Down, down with the rule of the (Brotherhood's) Supreme Guide," shouted a woman as the courtroom descended into mayhem.

"I have never seen a courtroom like this anywhere in the world. This is no way for us to work. Do you call this justice?" said one lawyer, Khaled Fouad.

Judge Abdel Salam El-Naggar arrived and told the crowd "Your presence here will not intimidate the court".

He suspended the session to allow time for the atmosphere to cool.

The power struggle unleashed by the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak last year has shifted from the streets to the ballot box and now the courts as Islamists vie for influence with their perennial adversaries in an army-led establishment.

At today's hearings judges will decide if an assembly drafting a new constitution should be scrapped.

They will also hear appeals against decrees by the military and one from Mr Morsi that recalled an Islamist-dominated parliament that the generals had dissolved.

"Everybody should know that the conspiracy against parliament will end in failure, as will the conspiracy against the constituent assembly and the constitution, and the president himself," said Essam al-Erian, leader of the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, in al-Ahram newspaper.

Brotherhood supporters warned the army not to undermine the country's new 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 student Ahmed Mohamed el-Sayed, a member of the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP).

On its Facebook page, the FJP declared the Cairo administrative court's deliberations "decisive" for the nation.

The military took power from Mubarak promising a new era of accountable, civilian rule but the transition has been chaotic and inconclusive.

It oversaw the first open leadership contest in Egypt's history, only to claw back vital powers from the new president, leaving Egyptians still wondering who really controls the Arab world's most populous nation since Mr Morsi took office on June 30th.

Self-proclaimed guardian of the Egyptian people, the army already disbanded parliament's first attempt at a constitutional assembly that critics saw as too heavily dominated by Islamists.

The generals have taken greater control over how the constitution is formed, angering the Brotherhood but comforting some liberals who fear Islamists are intent on dominating the state to impose their conservative agenda.

Some legal experts said the military was right to dissolve parliament because it was acting on a ruling by the country's Supreme Constitutional Court that had challenged the rules under which the legislature was elected.

"We are debating judicial, constitutional verdicts that are not debatable," said Sameh Ashour, head of Egypt's lawyers' syndicate, in newspaper al-Shorouk.

With Mr Morsi yet to form his cabinet, there is no fully functioning government, 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.

The president has avoided a major confrontation with the military council led by Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi - figurehead of the turbulent transition.

At a military graduation ceremony today, Mr Morsi sat alongside Mr Tantawi and other senior officers and made a speech in which he paid homage to the leaders of the armed forces during the uprising against Mubarak.

Appearing to address the political and legal tensions unfolding in Egypt, Mr Morsi said he was in ongoing talks to put in place "a comprehensive vision for managing the coming period constitutionally, legally and politically".

He also said a new government would be announced as soon as possible.