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'Turning point': Egypt's top court suspends work amid protests

As protesters clashes, President Mohammed Morsi of Egypt announced a referendum on a proposed constitution. NBC's Jim Maceda reports.

CAIRO — Protests by Islamists allied to President Mohammed Morsi forced Egypt's highest court to adjourn its work indefinitely on Sunday, intensifying a conflict between some of the country's top judges and the head of state.

The Supreme Constitutional Court said it would not convene until its judges could operate without "psychological and material pressure," saying protesters had stopped the judges from reaching the building.

Several hundred Islamists had protested outside the court building ahead of a session in which it was due to examine cases against the legality of the upper house of parliament and the assembly that drafted the new constitution, both bodies dominated by Islamists.

The cases added uncertainty to the crisis ignited by a Nov. 22 decree that temporarily expanded  Morsi's powers, triggering countrywide protests and violence that has deepened the rift between newly empowered Islamists and their opponents. 

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The judges said that they had been intimidated when they tried to get to the court on Sunday morning. 

After issuing a decree making himself more powerful than the courts, Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi has sparked a wave of anger – some of which is directed toward the United States. NBC's Richard Engel reports.

"As they approached the building there was a crowd of people surrounding the court from each side, as well as the road leading to the entrance gates, and on top of the walls, chanting slogans denouncing the court’s judges, and inciting people against them," according to a statement.

The statement added:

"The Supreme Constitutional Court now have no choice but to declare to the great people of Egypt that they cannot immediately work on their holy task under this charged atmosphere of rancor and hatred and the desire for revenge and the fabrication of fictitious conflicts. And we declare the suspension of hearings until we are able to continue our mission and continue in proceedings before the court without any psychological and physical pressures to which we are subjected."

The protest reflected the deep suspicion harbored by Egypt's Islamists towards a court they see as a vestige of the dictator Hosni Mubarak era. The same court ruled in June to dissolve the Muslim Brotherhood-led lower house of parliament.

"It is now a power struggle unconstrained by legal means," Gamal Abdul Gawad, a political science professor at the American University of Cairo, told NBC News.

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"Parties are using physical force to obtain political goals," he added. "They used an act of violence, of physical power to prevent judges from entering the court. It is a turning point in our political development."

According to NBC News' Charlene Gubash, tanks were parked at Cairo's main entrances, indicating that the military was on high alert. 

Hundreds of supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, which propelled Morsi to power in a June election, gathered outside the court through the night. "Yes to the constitution," declared a banner held aloft by one pro-Morsi protester. Chants demanded the "purging of the judiciary." 

Egypt's Morsi announces vote on draft constitution

The court earlier postponed a session set to examine cases that could further complicate the country's political crisis. 

Three people have been killed and hundreds injured in recent protests. The wave of street demonstrations continued through Sunday with a protest by at least 200,000 Morsi supporters at Cairo University. Morsi opponents are staging an open-ended sit-in in Cairo's Tahrir Square, the cradle of the uprising that toppled Mubarak. 

Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood hope to end the crisis by passing the new constitution that that was wrapped up on Friday. Morsi received the constitution on Saturday and immediately called a Dec. 15 referendum, urging all Egyptians to go out and vote. 

"The Muslim Brotherhood is determined to go ahead with its own plans regardless of everybody else. There is no compromise on the horizon," said Hassan Nafaa, a professor of political science at Cairo University. 

The constitution, he said, would likely be approved by a slim majority. "But in this case, how can you run a country with a disputed constitution — a constitution not adopted by consensus?" he said. 

Reuters and NBC News' Charlene Gubash and Taha Belal contributed to this story.

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