Egypt court hearing on new constitution postponed

President Mohammed Morsi has called for a Dec. 15 referendum on the new Egyptian constitution.

CAIRO - Protests by Islamists forced Egypt's highest court to postpone a session on Sunday set to examine the legality of the Islamist-dominated upper house of parliament and the body that drafted the new constitution, state media reported.

The Supreme Constitutional Court did not say when it would reschedule hearings in cases that threaten to further complicate a political crisis ignited by President Mohamed Morsi's Nov. 22 assumption of sweeping new powers.

Several hundred Muslim Brotherhood supporters chanting slogans demanding the "purging of the judiciary" had crowded outside the court building from the early hours of Sunday.

Egypt's newly empowered Islamists are deeply suspicious of the Supreme Constitutional Court, which ruled in June in favor of dissolving the Brotherhood-led lower house of parliament.

The constituent assembly, also dominated by Islamists, handed Morsi its final draft of the constitution on Saturday.

The 100-member constitutional assembly, which started work in June, finished the draft on Friday.

Morsi has called for a Dec. 15 referendum on the draft and hopes passing the constitution will help end the crisis.

Assuming the new constitution is approved in the referendum, legislative power will pass from Morsi to the upper house.

Islamist crowds demonstrated in Cairo on Saturday in support of Morsi, who is racing through approval of the constitution to try to defuse opposition fury over his newly expanded powers.

Many thousands assembled outside Cairo University, waving Egyptian flags and green Islamist emblems to show their backing for the president and the constitution he is promoting.

Mohamed Ibrahim, a hardline Salafi Islamist scholar and a member of the constituent assembly, said secular-minded Egyptians had been in a losing battle from the start.

"They will be sure of complete popular defeat today in a mass Egyptian protest that says 'no to the conspiratorial minority, no to destructive directions and yes for stability and sharia (Islamic law)'," he told Reuters.

Demonstrators, many of them bused in from the countryside, held pro-constitution banners. Some read "Islam is coming", "Yes to stability" and "No to corruption".

Tens of thousands of Egyptians had protested against Morsi on Friday and rival demonstrators threw stones after dark in Alexandria and the Nile Delta town of Al-Mahalla Al-Kobra.

VIDEO: Thousands protest

"The people want to bring down the regime," they chanted in Cairo's Tahrir Square, echoing the slogan that rang out there less than two years ago and brought down Hosni Mubarak.

Morsi plunged Egypt into a new crisis last week when he gave himself extensive powers and put his decisions beyond judicial challenge, saying this was a temporary measure to speed Egypt's democratic transition until the new constitution is in place.

His assertion of authority in a decree issued on Nov. 22, a day after he won world praise for brokering a Gaza truce between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist Hamas movement, dismayed his opponents and widened divisions among Egypt's 83 million people.

Two people have been killed and hundreds wounded in protests by disparate opposition forces drawn together and re-energized by a decree they see as a dictatorial power grab.

Mursi has alienated many of the judges who must supervise the referendum. His decree nullified the ability of the courts, many of them staffed by Mubarak-era appointees, to strike down his measures, although says he respects judicial independence.

A source at the presidency said Morsi might rely on the minority of judges who support him to supervise the referendum.

Morsi, once a senior Muslim Brotherhood figure, has put his liberal, leftist, Christian and other opponents in a bind. If they boycott the referendum, the constitution would pass anyway.

If they secured a "no" vote to defeat the draft, the president could retain the powers he has unilaterally assumed.

And Egypt's quest to replace the basic law that underpinned Mubarak's 30 years of army-backed one-man rule would also return to square one, creating more uncertainty in a nation in dire economic straits and seeking a $4.8 billion loan from the IMF.

"NO PLACE FOR DICTATORSHIP"

Morsi's well-organized Muslim Brotherhood and its ultra-orthodox Salafi allies, however, are convinced they can win the referendum by mobilizing their own supporters and the millions of Egyptians weary of political turmoil and disruption.

"There is no place for dictatorship," the president said on Thursday while the constituent assembly was still voting on a constitution which Islamists say enshrines Egypt's new freedoms.

Human rights groups have voiced misgivings, especially about articles related to women's rights and freedom of speech.

The text limits the president to two four-year terms, requires him to secure parliamentary approval for his choice of prime minister, and introduces a degree of civilian oversight over the military - though not enough for critics.

The draft constitution also contains vague, Islamist-flavored language that its opponents say could be used to whittle away human rights and stifle criticism.

For example, it forbids blasphemy and "insults to any person", does not explicitly uphold women's rights and demands respect for "religion, traditions and family values".

The draft injects new Islamic references into Egypt's system of government but retains the previous constitution's reference to "the principles of sharia" as the main source of legislation.

"We fundamentally reject the referendum and constituent assembly because the assembly does not represent all sections of society," said Sayed el-Erian, 43, a protester in Tahrir and member of a party set up by opposition figure Mohamed ElBaradei.

Several independent newspapers said they would not publish on Tuesday in protest. One of the papers also said three private satellite channels would halt broadcasts on Wednesday.

Egypt cannot hold a new parliamentary election until a new constitution is passed. The country has been without an elected legislature since a court ordered the dissolution of the Islamist-dominated lower house in June.

Additional reporting by Marwa Awad