CAIRO // Egypt's senior judges announced yesterday that they would delegate judicial officers to oversee a referendum on a controversial draft constitution, overriding calls for a boycott amid growing popular unrest.
The judges' decision brings a measure of relief to president Mohammed Morsi even as pressure mounts against him in the streets, with the opposition calling a new protest rally tomorrow.
The new charter, which was rushed through by the Islamist-dominated constituent assembly after Mr Morsi on November 22 issued a decree expanding his powers, has become the focal point of Egypt's biggest political crisis since the president was elected in June.
Mr Morsi's decree and the adoption of the constitution by an Islamist-dominated panel has polarised Islamist and largely secular forces with Cairo becoming the theatre of mass rival rallies.
The latest demonstration is scheduled for tomorrow, when a coalition of opposition groups, including Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei's party and supporters of the former presidential candidate, Hamdeen Sabbahi, are to rally outside the presidential palace to oppose the charter and the referendum.
But the Supreme Judicial Council's announcement that judges would after all monitor the December 15 nationwide referendum required for the draft constitution to pass into law comes as a blow to Mr Morsi's opponents, including judges, who had hoped to delegitimise the vote.
Mohammed Gadallah, Mr Morsi's legal aide, said the decision meant that the referendum would after all take place under judicial supervision.
"This means, it's over," he said when asked whether it was still possible for the vote to be boycotted by judges.
On Sunday, the Judges Club, which represents judges nationwide, said it would not oversee the referendum on the new constitution. Judicial anger at Mr Morsi's decree, which puts his decisions beyond the review of the courts rages on however and yesterday judges began an open-ended strike. The Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) suspended its work indefinitely due to "psychological and material pressure".
The press threw its weight behind the mounting protests against Mr Morsi, with an editorial in daily Al Shuruq stating: "Beware fascism is coming."
Eleven independent and opposition party newspapers have declared they will not go to print tomorrow.
The draft constitution, which is to replace the one suspended after president Hosni Mubarak was toppled last year, has been criticised for failing to protect key rights and allowing a stricter interpretation of Islamic law.
Mr Morsi's supporters accuse the opposition judges of being elitist holdouts from the Mubarak-era who oppose Islamists.
The president has stressed that his new sweeping powers are temporary.