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Cairo - Egypt's highest court joined a judicial rebellion against President Mohammed Morsi on Sunday by declaring an open-ended strike on the day it was supposed to rule on the legitimacy of two key assemblies controlled by allies of the Islamist leader.
The strike by the Supreme Constitutional Court and opposition plans to march on the presidential palace on Tuesday take the country's latest political crisis to a level not seen in the nearly two years of turmoil since Hosni Mubarak's ouster in a popular uprising.
Judges from the country's highest appeals court and its sister lower court were already on an indefinite strike, joining colleagues from other tribunals who suspended work last week to protest what they saw as Morsi's assault on the judiciary.
The last time Egypt had an all-out strike by the judiciary was in 1919, when judges joined an uprising against British colonial rule.
The standoff began when Morsi issued decrees on Nov. 22 giving him near-absolute powers that granted himself and the Islamist-dominated assembly drafting the new constitution immunity from the courts.
The constitutional panel then raced in a marathon session last week to vote on the charter's 236 clauses without the participation of liberal and Christian members. The fast-track hearing pre-empted a decision from the Supreme Constitutional Court that was widely expected to dissolve the constituent assembly.
The judges on Sunday postponed their ruling on that case just before they went on strike.
Without a functioning justice system, Egypt will be plunged even deeper into turmoil. It has already seen a dramatic surge in crime after the uprising, while state authority is being challenged in many aspects of life and the courts are burdened by a massive backlog of cases.
"The country cannot function for long like this, something has to give," said Negad Borai, a private law firm director and a rights activist. "We are in a country without courts of law and a president with all the powers in his hands. This is a clear-cut dictatorial climate," he said.
Mohamed Abdel-Aziz, a rights lawyer, said the strike by the judges will impact everything from divorce and theft to financial disputes that, in some cases, could involve foreign investors.
"Ordinary citizens affected by the strike will become curious about the details of the current political crisis and could possibly make a choice to join the protests," he said.
The Judges Club, a union with 9,500 members, said late Sunday that judges would not, as customary, oversee the national referendum Morsi called for Dec. 15 on the draft constitution hammered out and hurriedly voted on last week.
The absence of their oversight would raise more questions about the validity of the vote. If the draft is passed in the referendum, parliamentary elections are to follow two months later and they too may not have judicial supervision.
The judges say they will remain on strike until Morsi rescinds his decrees, which the Egyptian leader said were temporary and needed to protect the nation's path to democratic rule.
For now, however, Morsi has to contend with the fury of the judiciary. The constitutional court called Sunday "the Egyptian judiciary's blackest day on record."
It described the scene outside the Nile-side court complex, where thousands of Islamist demonstrators gathered since the early morning hours carrying banners denouncing the tribunal and some of its judges.
A statement by the court, which swore Morsi into office on June 30, said its judges approached the complex but turned back when they saw the protesters blocking entrances and climbing over its fences. They feared for their safety, it added.
"The judges of the Supreme Constitutional Court were left with no choice but to announce to the glorious people of Egypt that they cannot carry out their sacred mission in this charged atmosphere," said the statement, which was carried by state news agency MENA.
Supporters of Morsi, who hails from the Islamic fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, claim that the court's judges remain loyal to Mubarak, who appointed them, and accuse them of trying to derail Egypt's transition to democratic rule.
In addition to the high court's expected ruling Sunday on the legitimacy of the constitution-drafting panel, it was also expected to rule on another body dominated by Morsi supporters, parliament's upper chamber.
Though Morsi's Nov. 22 decrees provide immunity to both bodies against the courts, a ruling that declares the two illegitimate would have vast symbolic significance, casting doubt on the standing of both.
The Brotherhood's political arm, the Freedom and Justice party, sought to justify the action of its supporters outside the court as a peaceful protest. It reiterated its charge that some members of the judiciary were part and parcel of Mubarak's autocratic policies.
"The wrong practices by a minority of judges and their preoccupation with politics ... will not take away the respect people have for the judiciary," it said.
Its explanation, however, failed to calm the anger felt by many activists and politicians.
"President Morsi must take responsibility before the entire world for terrorizing the judiciary," veteran rights campaigner and opposition leader Abdel-Halim Kandil wrote in his Twitter account about the events outside the constitutional court.
Liberal activist and former lawmaker Amr Hamzawy warned what is ahead may be worse.
"The president and his group (the Muslim Brotherhood) are leading Egypt into a period of darkness par excellence," he said. "He made a dictatorial decision to hold a referendum on an illegal constitution that divides society, then a siege of the judiciary to terrorize it."
Egypt has been rocked by several bouts of unrest, some violent, since Mubarak was forced to step down in the face of a popular uprising. But the current one is probably the worst.
Morsi's decrees gave him powers that none of his four predecessors since the ouster of the monarchy 60 years ago ever had. Opposition leaders countered that he turned himself into a new "pharaoh" and a dictator even worse than his immediate predecessor Mubarak.
Then, following his order, the constituent assembly rushed a vote on the draft constitution in an all-night session.
The draft has a new article that seeks to define what the "principles" of Islamic law are by pointing to theological doctrines and their rules. Another new article states that Egypt's most respected Islamic institution, Al-Azhar, must be consulted on any matters related to Shariah law, a measure critics fear could lead to oversight of legislation by clerics.
Rights groups have pointed out that virtually the only references to women relate to the home and family, that the new charter uses overly broad language with respect to the state protecting "ethics and morals" and fails to outlaw gender discrimination.
At times the process appeared slap-dash, with fixes to missing phrasing and even several entirely new articles proposed, written and voted on in the hours just before sunrise.
The decrees and the vote on the constitution draft galvanized the fractured, mostly secular opposition, with senior leaders setting aside differences and egos to form a united front in the face of Morsi, whose offer on Saturday for a national dialogue is yet to find takers.
The opposition brought out at least 200,000 protesters to Cairo's Tahrir Square on Tuesday and a comparable number Friday to press demands that the decrees be rescinded. The Islamists responded Saturday with massive rallies in Cairo and across much of Egypt.
The opposition is raising the stakes with plans to march on Morsi' palace on Tuesday, a move last seen on Feb. 11, 2011 when tens of thousands of protesters marched from Tahrir Square to Mubarak's palace in the Heliopolis district to force him out. Mubarak stepped down that day, but Morsi is highly unlikely to follow suit on Tuesday.