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Egypt’s Supreme Judicial Council to oversee constitutional referendum

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CAIRO — Egypt’s Supreme Judicial Council agreed Monday to oversee a referendum on the nation’s controversial draft constitution, clearing the way for the Dec. 15 vote and offering the possibility of legal credibility that had been uncertain until now.

After many influential judges had called for a boycott of the referendum, the decision by the nation’s top judicial administrative authority represents a victory for President Mohamed Morsi and his Islamist backers.

They hope the vote will settle a political crisis stemming from a decree that Morsi issued Nov. 22 giving himself near-absolute power, which he said was needed to speed up Egypt’s rocky democratic transition. The decree is to be nullified when the charter is adopted.

But whether the referendum will accomplish that goal or make things worse remains uncertain. The revolutionaries who ousted autocrat Hosni Mubarak nearly two years ago remain deeply divided over Morsi’s decree and the draft constitution, which was rushed to approval by an Islamist-dominated panel despite walkouts by secular, liberal and other non-Islamist members who felt their concerns were being ignored.

Over the past 10 days, both sides have staged large protests, as if Egyptians have decided that their differences might be solved with raw displays of power on the streets. Non-
Islamist opposition groups have rallied against Morsi’s decree, which temporarily places his actions beyond judicial review. In an unlikely collaboration, they have been joined by many top Mubarak-­era judges, who have been in a power struggle with Morsi since his June election, dissolving the Islamist-dominated parliament and threatening to dismiss the ­constitution-writing assembly.

The president’s Muslim Brotherhood supporters answered with their own demonstration Saturday, in which tens of thousands of Islamists flooded the streets. Some of them marched to Egypt’s highest court Sunday, blocking judges from entering, shouting insults and eventually leading the court to suspend work indefinitely.

That, along with an ongoing strike by some of Egypt’s top courts, had cast serious doubt on whether Morsi could persuade the judiciary to oversee the referendum, which would require about 10,000 judges.

The decision by the Supreme Judicial Council, in principle, clears the way for judges to participate, although the potential for legal and political chaos remains.

On Monday, seven cases against Morsi’s call for the referendum were filed in an administrative court. And opposition forces have called for demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on Tuesday, with some planning to march to the presidential palace.

Ingy Hassieb contributed to this report.

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