Egyptians clash with security forces near Cairo's Tahrir Square,… (Khalil Hamra / Associated…)
CAIRO — Egypt's highest court Wednesday went on the offensive against President Mohamed Morsi, saying it would not be "blackmailed" and indicating it would soon rule on whether to dissolve the Islamist-led constitutional assembly he has vowed to protect.
Sensing the Supreme Constitutional Court may move against it, the assembly announced it was rushing to deliver a final draft of the new constitution to Morsi on Thursday, days before the court is expected to make its decision. The rapid-paced maneuvering between the court and Morsi spoke to a dramatic test of wills over which side would shape the charter and the nation's political future.
Beyond the judicial chambers and presidential palace, anti-Morsi protests echoed across cities as the Muslim Brotherhood requested that the army guard its offices from ransacking and arson. Thousands of protesters marched in Tahrir Square, where more than 30 tents have been set up, but the turnout was not as high as Tuesday's. The opposition is desperate to keep up momentum among demonstrators, including families, merchants and students, as well as boys who daily hurl stones at riot police.
Morsi stunned Egyptians last week by placing his office and the constitutional assembly above judicial oversight. The president's credibility, already challenged by the court's stand, would be further damaged if the judges rule to nullify the assembly, which has been boycotted by liberals and non-Muslims because it leans toward sharia, or Islamic law, at the expense of civil rights.
The constitutional court "will not be intimidated, blackmailed or threatened, and we will not be subjected to any pressure regardless of how strong this pressure is. We are united," court spokesman Maher Samy told reporters in political theatrics that rivaled the passions that last year brought down longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
The court's statement means the judges "will tend to their work regardless of what happens," said Ahmed Ibrahim Ismail, an appeals court lawyer. "It seems that they will remain defiant because they have the people's support. The people are rejecting Morsi's declaration because it essentially turns the president into a godly figure."
The assembly has a troubled history. The constitutional court disbanded the original chamber in April and was set to rule on the fate of the current body on Dec. 2. The drafting of the constitution has been marked by bickering, boycotts and controversies over religious influence. Many of its secular and non-Muslim representatives, including Christian Copts, have quit in protest.
But if a draft constitution is completed by Thursday it may preempt a court ruling and, possibly, ease the nation's latest crisis: Morsi's decree to protect the assembly from judicial oversight would not be needed if the assembly's work is complete.
"Come back to us so that we welcome you and you can be with us in issuing the constitution," said Hossam Gheriany, the assembly chairman, urging boycotting members to return to the chamber for a vote on the document Thursday.
The president and his movement "are trying to quickly cook up the constitution," said Mustafa Labbad, head of Al Sharq Center for Regional and Strategic Studies. "The assembly now doesn't represent the church, civil movements, farmers or laborers. Even if there is a referendum, this constitution does not represent the nation."
The Muslim Brotherhood and its ultraconservative allies are pressing for a referendum on the constitution as early as December. With its grass-roots networks and ability to rally the masses, the Brotherhood believes it can summon the votes to pass a document. But concerns of secularist and other opposition groups, which fear Islamists may add last-minute changes to the draft to further entrench sharia, may also galvanize large numbers against the proposal.
The animosity between the president and the constitutional court hardened in June when the court disbanded the Islamist-led parliament two weeks before Morsi, a former Muslim Brotherhood leader, was inaugurated, saying the chamber's seats were not properly distributed. The ruling slowed the Brotherhood's political momentum. Samy, the court spokesman, asserted that Morsi's recent actions show a "desire for revenge."
The Brotherhood said the verdict was an attack on Egypt's new political era by judges appointed during Mubarak's rule. Morsi has repeatedly warned that remnants of the old regime — businesspeople, intelligence agents, police and others — are working to destabilize the economy and his government.
"It wasn't true or honest to claim that the judges of the constitutional court are chosen from among those who have a specific political direction or are the previous regime's allies," Samy told journalists Wednesday.