CAIRO (Reuters) - Supporters of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood brawled with their opponents in court on Tuesday, delaying rulings that might help define the powers of new Islamist President Mohamed Mursi as he seeks more autonomy from the military.
Mursi’s Brotherhood allies hailed a “decisive” day in a chaotic transition to democracy and hundreds of supporters turned up at the courthouse to accuse the generals of using the judiciary to undermine his authority.
Overwhelmed by the shouting and jostling, the presiding judge suspended the hearing and moved to another courtroom to try to restore order. But many lawyers left as the disruption dragged on and the day ended with little progress.
“This court has always taken pride that its chambers are open to the public,” Judge Abdel Salam el-Naggar told the court. “What happened in that chamber - is such terrorism appropriate?”
The anger on display in the courtroom underscores widespread frustration at a chaotic and faltering democratic transition made possible by last year’s overthrow of autocratic leader Hosni Mubarak.
Despite his election victory in June, which ended more than 16 months of army rule, Mursi has yet to form a cabinet and there is no fully functioning parliament or constitution for Egypt, deepening the sense of turmoil that has pushed the economy to the brink of a balance of payments and budget crisis.
Judges have dismissed accusations that they are influenced by the military and opinion is split on whether the Cairo administrative court will strike down the constituent assembly, a body rewriting the constitution that was formed by an Islamist-dominated parliament the generals have since dissolved.
The divisions were on full view at the courthouse.
“Down, down with military rule,” cried Brotherhood supporters who want the constituent assembly to continue its work.
That drew an angry response from their opponents. “Down, down with the rule of the Supreme Guide,” shouted a woman, referring to the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohamed Badie.
As the mayhem deepened, lawyers called for the proceedings to be suspended.
“This isn’t justice,” said lawyer Nabiel Gabriel. “I am holding Mursi personally accountable for this chaos. He has a responsibility to establish order.”
A power struggle unleashed by the overthrow of Mubarak in a popular uprising last year has shifted from the streets to the ballot box and now the courts as Islamists exert pressure on the judiciary for fear the army-led establishment will use it to sideline them from power.
The period of army rule has sown confusion over the primacy of state institutions and the judiciary is often exasperated by the complexity of the cases it must consider.
Beside the constituent assembly, the judges were also trying to study appeals against decrees by the military and one from Mursi that recalled parliament after the generals dissolved it.
On its Facebook page, the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) said the deliberations would be “decisive”.
Yet there was little hope that the rulings, when they come, would end the institutional wrangling and endless court challenges that have been delaying Egypt’s return to stability.
Brotherhood supporters said no one could overrule elected institutions.
“Who elected the constitutional assembly? Parliament. And who elected parliament? The people. We are the ones to determine our fate,” said 20-year-old protester Ahmed Mohamed el-Sayed, an FJP member.
The court closed proceedings with a decision to look into lawyer demands to change the judges reviewing the constituent assembly case.
It also ruled that challenges to an army decree dissolving parliament be sent to a judicial panel for review, and said it would rule on Thursday on a decree by the army giving itself legislative powers and limiting the remit of the president.
The military took power from Mubarak promising a new era of accountable, civilian rule but the transition has been chaotic and inconclusive.
It oversaw the first open leadership contest in Egypt’s history, only to claw back vital powers from the new president, leaving Egyptians still wondering who really controls the Arab world’s most populous nation since Mursi took office on June 30.
Self-proclaimed guardians of the Egyptian people, the generals have taken greater control over how the constitution is formed, angering the Brotherhood but comforting some liberals who fear Islamists are intent on dominating the state to impose their conservative agenda.
A previous constituent assembly was dissolved by court order, after liberals and others quit the body complaining it was so dominated by Islamists that it failed to reflect Egypt’s diversity.
So far, Mursi has avoided a major confrontation with the military council led by Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi - figurehead of the turbulent transition.
At a military graduation ceremony on Tuesday, Mursi sat alongside Tantawi and other senior officers and made a speech in which he paid homage to the leaders of the armed forces during the uprising against Mubarak.
Appearing to address the political and legal tensions unfolding in Egypt, Mursi said he was in talks to put in place “a comprehensive vision for managing the coming period constitutionally, legally and politically”.
He said a government would be announced as soon as possible to replace an interim, army-appointed cabinet still in office.
The decision will not come too soon for many Egyptians tired by the continued uncertainty.
“The state of the country is unacceptable,” said Ahmed Mahmoud, a language teacher from a region northeast of Cairo who travelled to the courthouse to vent his frustration. “They want us to stay in a state of transition not for a year but 10.”
Additional reporting by Shaimaa Fayed, Tom Perry and Tamim Elyan; Writing by Tom Pfeiffer; Editing by Alison Williams and Alessandra Rizzo