CAIRO: Egypt's Islamist-led parliament on Wednesday pushed ahead with a controversial judicial law in a heated session, despite a rising uproar among judges and the opposition who fear Islamists' control over courts.
The judiciary, with mostly secular-minded professional judges, is seen by many Egyptians as the one of the only remaining buffers against Islamists' monopoly of power following the ouster of authoritarian ruler Hosni Mubarak in 2011. Since then, Islamist parties have swept most polls and dominated legislative councils and the presidency.
The opposition vowed to escalate a campaign against the bill and judges called an emergency meeting. Activists who helped topple Mubarak have demanded that President Mohammed Morsi reform the judiciary and support its independence.
Presidential spokesman Ihab Fahmy told reporters on Wednesday that the Islamist president respects the judges and has assured them that he won't accept an assault on the judiciary.
"The president is keen on containing the judiciary crisis," he said. He added: "The president firmly stressed that it's unacceptable to hurt or encroach on the judiciary."
The crisis over the judiciary is a reflection of the deep-polarization that split the country into proponents and opponents of Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood party backers. Dispute over the controversial law is the latest in a power tussle between Morsi and the judiciary since his June election.
Last year, courts disbanded the parliament, dominated by Islamists, over unconstitutionality of the election law. Last month, the courts challenged a new law governing parliamentary elections that were slated to begin this month, delaying the vote indefinitely. The president's Muslim Brotherhood party was pushing for early elections.
Morsi alleges that some in the judiciary are plotting conspiracies against his administration. His party says some judges want to bring back Mubarak's regime.
At the same time as Fahmy's remarks, the legislative committee of the upper house of parliament, which is seated as a transitional legislature, 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 group, 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 bar the courts from reviewing or overturning presidential decrees issued by Morsi late last year, including his unilateral appointment of a new top prosecutor.
The same proposal mandates that judges oversee polling stations and punish those who refuse to carry out their duties - a job that used to be voluntary. Last year, during the vote over a controversial 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.
During the parliamentary session, independent lawmaker Tharwat Nafaa ripped up a letter sent by the Judges' Union. The letter demanded the parliament stop debating the law because it said the constitutionality of the body was in dispute. Upset by the union's challenge, Nafaa, in front of cameras, screamed: "This is humiliation!"
At the Judges' Union headquarters where thousands of judges gathered to discuss their next move if the parliament passes the bill, Ahmed el-Zind, the head of the union, questioned Nafaa's political affiliation. "Are you really independent?" he shouted in his lengthy speech.
The crisis over the judiciary also has prompted the resignations of top Morsi's aides and advisers.
On Monday, the Morsi's top legal adviser Mohammed Fouad Gadallah resigned. In his three-page resignation letter, he said 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, complaining that Morsi's supporters were "trampling" on the judiciary. He too criticized the president's handling of the dispute with the judiciary. He was a longtime pro-reform judge under Mubarak before becoming a minister in Morsi's government.
Fahmy, the presidential spokesman, told reporters that Morsi accepted Gadallah's resignation. He stopped short of commenting on the reasons stated for the resignation, saying only "this is a personal point of view that we don't comment on." He said Morsi will form a new panel of legal advisers.