A court on Tuesday postponed issuing a key ruling on whether a Muslim Brotherhood-led panel tasked with writing Egypt's new constitution is legal, after Islamists protested outside the courtroom and squabbled with rival lawyers inside in a tense session.
The tensions were a sign of the stakes in the case, which will effectively determine who oversees the process for writing the constitution — the Brotherhood or the military. That has made the case the latest front in their struggle over power since a Brotherhood member won last month's presidential election.
The current 100-member constituent assembly is led by the Brotherhood and other Islamists. If Cairo's High Administrative Court orders it disbanded, the military — which took power after last year's ouster of Hosni Mubarak — would create the new panel.
A verdict disbanding the panel would be the latest in a series of blows the Brotherhood has suffered from the judicial system. Earlier court rulings dissolved a previous constituent assembly, also dominated by Islamists, and dissolved the Brotherhood-led parliament last month.
During Tuesday's 6-hour court session, Brotherhood supporters pointed at rival lawyers and chanted "remnants" — as in, remnants of the former regime. Judges had to suspend the session twice because of pushing and shoving between the rival sides.
In response, protesters chanted, "The people want to cleanse the judiciary."
The court is to convene again on Thursday, when it might issue a ruling. First, however, it must decide on a motion by Brotherhood lawyers demanding the judges be changed. If it accepts the motion, new judges would be named; if not, it will likely issue its verdict on the constitutional panel.
Sobhi Saleh, a leading Brotherhood member and a lawmaker of the dissolved parliament, warned that disbanding the panel "would complicate the problem, not resolve it."
"Now if the military puts forward their own constitution, no one is going to accept it, and the military generals will be the ones challenging the regime."
The Muslim Brotherhood, whose candidate Mohammed Morsi won last month's presidential election to become the first elected Islamist leader in Egypt's history, is in a tug of war with the council of generals led by Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, Mubarak's defense minister for 20 years.
Just before Morsi's election win, the generals severely undercut the president's mandate and withdrew many of his authorities, dissolved parliament and took on legislative powers for themselves. The military also gave itself the right to name the next constitutional panel, a task that had been parliament's.
On Sunday, Tantawi took a tough line on the Brotherhood, warning that he won't let the fundamentalist group dominate the country.
Egypt "belongs to all Egyptians and not to a certain group — the armed forces will not allow it," he said.
Egyptians have hoped a new constitution would be a milestone for democratic rule after decades of authoritarian regimes. Instead, the process has been sucked into the turmoil of Egypt's transition.
Over the past months, the Brotherhood and other Islamists have angered liberals and secular Egyptians by using their majority in the now-disbanded parliament to impose their dominance over the constituent assembly. That has fueled fears that Islamists will enshrine greater religion in government and restrict liberties.
The first assembly was disbanded by a court order in April after liberals and secular members withdrew in protest of the overwhelming Islamist majority.
After weeks of negotiations, parliament approved a new panel, but Islamists still held more than half the seats. Last month, opponents of Islamists again walked out, protesting a voting mechanism with allowed articles to be approved by a simple majority, meaning Islamists could push through their demands.
Even after the dissolution of parliament and as court cases were raised against the panel, the remaining members continued to meet.
Ahmed Khair, spokesman of the Free Egyptians Party, a liberal group that boycotted the current panel, blamed the military council over the current disarray.
It is "the outcome of a bad management and series of failures from the very beginning," he said. "We are in a political, constitutional and legal crisis."
"We don't trust each other. The president doesn't trust the military, the political forces don't trust each other or the military or the president. "