CAIRO -- Egypt's constitutional court Sunday put off its much-awaited ruling on the legitimacy of the Islamist-led legislative assembly that drafted a new charter last week, accusing a crowd of Islamists outside the courthouse of intimidating its judges.
What actually took place at the courthouse, however, is a matter of dispute.
Calling Sunday "a dark black day in the history of the Egyptian judiciary," the Supreme Constitutional Court charged in a statement that a mob of Islamists had blocked the judges from entering the courthouse, in an "abhorrent scene of shame and disgrace."
Approaching the court, the judges saw crowds "closing the entrances of the roads to the gates, climbing the fences, chanting slogans denouncing judges and inciting the people against them," the statement said, adding that "the threat of harm" prevented the judges from entering. The judges said they were suspending the court's sessions until they could resume their work without "psychological and physical pressures."
While the judges blamed the Islamists, the Islamists accused the judges of manufacturing a melodramatic excuse for failing to show up. And the contradictory narratives captured a clash between the judges -- appointed by deposed President Hosni Mubarak -- and Egypt's new Islamist leaders that has thrown the political transition into a new crisis 22 months after the ouster of the now-imprisoned Mubarak.
Egyptian courts had previously dissolved both the elected Parliament and an earlier Constitutional Assembly, and the breakup of the current one would have completely undone the transition. President Mohammed Morsi cited the pending ruling Nov. 22 when he put his own edicts above judicial review until ratification of the constitution, saying that he intended to protect the assembly until it finished its work.
That same apprehension about the ruling drove the assembly to rush to approve a constitution just before dawn Friday, over the objections of secular parties and the Coptic Christian Church, before the court could act.
The judges' statement Sunday was a counterattack, and the scene outside the courthouse was much quieter than their statement described. Hundreds of riot police officers backed by a fire truck and several armored personnel carriers were on hand to secure the judges' entry to the courthouse, and several people were seen coming and going without any difficulty.
The Interior Ministry said in a statement on its website that it had arranged to secure the entrance and protect the judges, that the protests were "peaceful" and that a number of judges had already arrived safely.
On the other side of the police line was a relatively staid crowd of a few hundred demonstrators from the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's mainstream political group, and its political arm, Mr. Morsi's Freedom and Justice Party. Like many of the group's demonstrations, it was a mostly middle-aged, middle-class crowd of men in sweaters and a few neckties. By around 10 a.m., some were chanting slogans, but others were sitting on the ground reading newspapers. Many carried placards with Mr. Morsi's picture or banners with the logo of his party, and one was reading its Web page on his iPad.
"We immunize the constituent assembly, and dissolve the constitutional court," they chanted. "Freedom is coming, coming." Some chants were directed at Judge Tahani el-Gebali, who is known for her political activism and opposition to the Islamists.
Elsewhere, the battle over control of the transition's final stage appeared to widen. A few hours later Sunday, leaders of the largest association of judges tried to block a referendum on the new constitution scheduled for Dec. 15, by announcing that its members would refuse to perform their customary roles as election supervisors.
Leaders of the Judges Club, as the association is called, have been outspoken opponents of the Islamists. On the day of the presidential election, its leader tried to undermine Mr. Morsi by holding a news conference to accuse his campaign of fraud and other violations, though no systematic irregularities were ultimately found. The club has already called for a nationwide judges' strike to protest Mr. Morsi's attempt to claim temporary powers above the judiciary, and Mr. Morsi's aides say they have been considering other options if the judges refuse to monitor the referendum.
The Islamists in the Constitutional Assembly, meanwhile, have apparently struck back at their foes in the court. Egyptian state news media reported the existence of a little-noticed clause tucked into the draft constitution that appears to single out Judge el-Gebali, the Islamists' bete noire, for removal from the bench.
The provision would keep the president of the court and its 10 most senior judges, but remove more junior members, and the 11th in seniority -- the first who would be forced off the bench -- is Judge el-Gebali.