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Supporters of Islamist president push Egypt to tipping point

Ahmad Hammad / AP

A demonstrator chants slogans as several thousand supporters of President Mohammed Morsi surround the Supreme Constitutional Court on Sunday.

News analysis

CAIRO - There’s usually a lot of movement around Cairo’s highest court, and Monday was no exception. But acutely missing were the judges and lawyers themselves -- they’re on strike, protesting against the hundreds of Islamist demonstrators occupying the court’s grounds since Saturday night.

The judges -- seen by Islamists as holdovers from the regime of ousted President Hosni Mubarak -- have said they feel too intimidated to come and do their work, which would have included ruling on the legality of a 234-article draft constitution the opposition maintains is flawed, incomplete and above all else, leans too far toward Islamic law.

The scene was festive when NBC News visited the court. Small bands of men, many of them bearded, said they had come to support President Mohammed Morsi. They carried banners or posters and danced to pro-Morsi chants belted out through loudspeakers. Some sat reading newspapers or the Quran, or slept on the shaded grass around the imposing stone building. Fresh replacements were bused in every morning, participants told NBC News.

Crisis tests Egyptians' constitution

The phalanx of riot police -- around 100 in all -- formed a cordon around the protesters, not the courthouse. Instead of protecting judges and allowing them to get into the courthouse, they appeared to be protecting the protesters. 

Protester Waheed Amr laughed as he held up his ID card showing he was a member of the judiciary police.

Mona El-Tahawy explains why President Mohammed Morsi's recent decree is very insulting to many Egyptians who demonstrated against Former President Hosni Mubarak's regime.

"The police are here to protect the judges, not us. We can protect ourselves," he said.  

Amr just laughed again when a reporter pointed out that there were no judges to protect.

"We support the revolutionary decisions of our president," he said. "He's cleaning up the country, and we are here to deliver a message of support."

In revolution, he seemed to say, physicality can trump the rule of law, because it becomes the law.

The pro-Morsi sit-in at the high court is a counter-point to the 11-day camp-out in Tahrir Square, the symbolic heart of the broad-based revolution that overthrew Mubarak in 2011. Over there, several hundred die-hard opponents chant against Morsi’s controversial decrees and his support for what many see as an openly pro-Islamist constitution. 

NBC News

"We support the revolutionary decisions of our president," protester Waheed Amr said outside of Egypt's highest court. "He's cleaning up the country, and we are here to deliver a message of support."

And the high court sit-in only complicates efforts as the hodgepodge of liberal, secular, moderate and Christian minorities ponders what to do next.

In 12 days it looks likely that a national referendum on the draft constitution will take place. On Monday, Morsi’s top legal adviser said that preparations were already under way. And, after hundreds of judges from a union called the Judges Club announced that its members would not oversee the running of the polling stations, the powerful Supreme Judicial Council -- a body comprising thousands of judges -- agreed to oversee the Dec. 15 referendum.  

So far, Morsi's opposition looks out-maneuvered.

Liberals, Christians left out as Islamists back Egypt's draft constitution

Meanwhile, the opposition’s options are between two rocks and a hard place: it either boycotts the constitutional referendum, effectively ending its campaign for power and influence; or it fights hard to win a "no" vote and loses, which weakens it but strengthens Morsi by legitimizing the current draft; or it surprises everyone and wins a "no" vote, which would only move the whole process back to square one and give the president another five or six months of special powers to hand-pick yet another group to write a draft constitution.

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

The anti-Morsi judges also have their backs to the wall. Even if they find the nerve to meet at the high court or somewhere else and dissolve the body that wrote the draft constitution -- they could chose to do so because it was created under questionable laws -- their ruling would have no legal effect, as Morsi’s recent decrees give him and the writing body immunity from judicial review.

So until there’s a new constitution, Morsi holds all cards -- executive, legislative, and now, judicial.

But, if that’s the case, why are pro-Morsi protesters preventing Egyptian judges from doing their job in their own courtroom? "Look," said Amr, "the gates of the court are open! We’re not cutting off the courthouse. We’re here to tell the court to stay out of politics!"

In doing so with brute force and intimidation, have Morsi and his supporters reached what some Middle East analysts are calling a tipping point in the two-year old revolution? One that now looks increasingly like it's sliding toward an Islamic state?

Jim Maceda is an NBC News foreign correspondent based in London who is currently on assignment in Cairo. He has covered the Middle East since the 1970s.

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