CAIRO (AP) — Egypt’s Islamist-led parliament on Wednesday pushed ahead with a law that could force into retirement many of the nation’s most senior judges, despite an uproar by the judiciary over fears the president’s allies want to control the courts.
The country’s Judges’ Club, an organization representing Egypt’s judges, warned they would not recognize the law or even the discussions in parliament about it. They vowed to turn to international organizations, such as the United Nations and African Union, to investigate what they said are violations against the judiciary.
More than 6,000 judges from around the country gathered in Cairo Wednesday to decide on a strategy in their power struggle with President Mohammed Morsi.
The crisis over the judiciary is a reflection of the deep polarization that has split the country.
The judiciary, with mostly secular-minded professional judges, is seen by many Egyptians as the one of the only remaining buffers against Islamists’ monopoly on power following the ouster of authoritarian ruler Hosni Mubarak in 2011. Since then, Islamist parties have swept elections and dominated legislative councils and the presidency.
President Mohammed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood party counters that many judges are holdovers from the Mubarak era who must be replaced. Morsi’s supporters engaged in violent street clashes last Friday with opponents over calls to “cleanse the judiciary.”
In an escalation of the crisis, the legislative committee of the upper house of parliament voted in favor of three draft laws on the judiciary proposed by Islamist groups. It opened the floor for further debate.
One, proposed by Morsi’s Freedom and Justice party, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, drops the retirement age for judges from 70 to 60, which would affect nearly a quarter of Egypt’s 13,000 judges and prosecution officials.
The draft also would forbid the courts from reviewing or overturning presidential decrees issued by Morsi late last year, including his appointment of a new top prosecutor. The prosecutor remains in place despite a court order last month annulling his appointment.
The opposition vowed to step up its campaign against the bill. Activist groups who helped topple Mubarak, such as the April 6 Movement, are demanding reform of the judiciary and support its independence. April 6 warned in a statement against replacing remnants of Mubarak’s regime with Morsi’s loyalists.
The head of the criminal court in Cairo’s sister city of Giza, Fahmy Munir, was among those at the Judges’ Club meeting.
“We tell them, don’t transgress against the judiciary,” he warned the government, adding that violations against the judiciary are akin to “a challenge to the people.”
Presidential spokesman Ihab Fahmy told reporters Wednesday that the Islamist president respects the judges.
“The president wants to contain the judiciary crisis,” he said. “The president firmly stressed that it’s unacceptable to hurt or encroach on the judiciary.”
Among the setbacks the judiciary dealt the president’s backers was disbanding the Islamist-dominated parliament last year, citing unconstitutionality of the election law. Last month, the courts challenged a law governing parliamentary elections that were supposed to begin this month, delaying the vote indefinitely. The president’s party was pushing for early elections.
The proposal in parliament by the president’s party also calls for punishments for judges who refuse their duty to oversee polling stations. Last year, during the vote over a contentious draft of the country’s new constitution that was written by Morsi’s allies, many judges boycotted the vote to protest a decree that temporarily granted Morsi’s decisions immunity from judicial review.
The head of the Judges’ Club, Ahmed el-Zind, said they would not go on strike as many did last year, but they would seek international help.
During the parliamentary session, independent lawmaker Tharwat Nafaa ripped up a letter sent by the Judges’ Club. The letter demanded the parliament stop debating the law because it said the constitutionality of the body was in dispute.
Before thousands of judges late Wednesday, union chief el-Zind questioned Nafaa’s political affiliation. “Are you really independent?” he shouted during his lengthy speech.
The crisis over the judiciary also has prompted the resignations of top Morsi aides.
On Monday, the Morsi’s top legal adviser, Mohammed Fouad Gadallah, resigned, saying he wanted to shed light “on the extent of the danger facing the country” at a time when “personal interests are overwhelming national interests.”
Two days earlier, Justice Minister Ahmed Mekki submitted his resignation. He was a pro-reform judge under Mubarak before becoming a minister in Morsi’s Cabinet. He was criticized by liberals for continuing to serve under Morsi, while Islamists chided him for not supporting the disputed bill.
AP writer Sarah El Deeb contributed to this report.