Egypt's top court said it was suspending its work indefinitely to protest "psychological and physical pressures" after supporters of the country's Islamist president prevented judges from entering the courthouse Sunday to rule on the legitimacy of a disputed constitutional assembly.
The court's decision is the latest turn in a worsening political crisis pitting President Mohammed Morsi and his Islamist allies against the mostly secular opposition. The standoff began when Morsi issued a package of decrees on Nov. 22 that gave him sweeping powers and extended immunity from the courts to a panel tasked with drafting a new constitution. (For more on why the draft constitution is so controversial, see our explainer.)
The Islamist-dominated panel then raced in a marathon session last week to vote on the new charter's 230 clauses without the participation of liberal and Christian members. The fast-track hearing preempted a decision expected from the court on Sunday on whether to dissolve the committee – a ruling the judges postponed on Sunday.
Morsi on Saturday announced a referendum on the draft charter for Dec. 15, despite opposition protests and questions about the document's legitimacy.
"It is the Egyptian judiciary's blackest day on record," the court said in a statement carried by the official MENA news agency, describing the scene outside the court complex, with Islamists carrying banners denouncing the tribunal and some of its judges.
Brothers: Judges are Mubarak loyalists
Supporters of Morsi, who hails from the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, claim that the court's judges are loyalists of ousted president Hosni Mubarak, who appointed them to their positions, and are trying to derail the country's transition to democratic rule.
The court statement said the judges approached the court but decided against entering the building because they feared for their safety.
"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," the statement said.
The judges also were expected to rule to on the legitimacy of the Islamist-dominated upper house of parliament, known as the Shura Council.
By suspending its work, the court joined the country's highest appeals court and its sister lower court in their indefinite strike to protest what they see as Morsi's infringement on the judiciary. Most judges and prosecutors in the country have been on strike for a week.