Middle East

Egypt judges 'to oversee referendum' despite boycott

Protest in Tahrir Square, Cairo, Egypt (1 Dec 2012)
Image caption Protesters have returned to Cairo's Tahrir Square in response to President Morsi's recent decisions

Egypt's top judicial body has said it will oversee a referendum on a new constitution, state media reports.

The move comes a day after another body of judges, the Judges' Club, urged its members to refuse to preside over the vote, scheduled for 15 December.

The council has not yet commented on the report in the Mena news agency.

The draft constitution and a recent decree by President Mohammed Morsi extending his powers have prompted widespread protests.

The Judges' Club, a powerful but unofficial body which represents judges across the country, has urged its members to boycott the vote, with the aim of undermining the credibility of the ballot.

But Mohamed Gadallah, the legal adviser to Mr Morsi, said the Supreme Judicial Council had now met and "agreed to delegate judges to oversee the constitutional referendum".

He told AFP news agency the council was "the largest body responsible for judges" and had "realised they had a responsibility before the nation to supervise".

This meant the threat of a judges' boycott was "over", he said.

The BBC's Jon Leyne in Cairo says the council's apparent decision is important as judges are required to supervise the vote at each polling station.

Mr Gadallah said about 10,000 members of the judiciary would be needed to monitor the process.

Judges 'divided'

The draft was rushed through the constituent assembly on Thursday night.

Mr Morsi has called on "all Egyptians" to take part in the referendum, whether or not they agree with the draft, saying: "The world is looking at how Egyptians will build their institutions to establish their democratic system."

But the mainly secular critics of the constitution say it undermines basic freedoms and gives too much influence to Islamists, and that Mr Morsi's decree is a power grab.

Protesters have returned to Tahrir Square in Cairo - the centre of the unrest which ousted former President Hosni Mubarak last year - and it remains unclear what level of participation there will be in the referendum.

Egypt's judges have been among the strongest opponents of President Morsi's recent decisions, including his issuing of a decree which extended his powers and stripped the judiciary of the right to challenge his decisions.

But our correspondent says it now appears the judges are divided.

At the weekend, supporters of President Morsi and the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood blockaded the Supreme Constitutional Court in Cairo, where judges had been due to discuss the legality of the decree.

The Court responded by going on strike indefinitely in protest at the "psychological pressure" it said it was facing.