CAIRO -- Egypt's rebellion of the judges against President Mohammed Morsi became complete on Sunday with the country's highest court declaring an open-ended strike on the day it was supposed to rule on the legitimacy of two key assemblies controlled by allies of the Islamist leader.
The strike by the Supreme Constitutional Court and opposition plans to march on the presidential palace on Tuesday take the country's latest political crisis to a level not seen in the nearly two years of turmoil since Hosni Mubarak's ouster in a popular uprising.
Judges from the country's highest appeals court and its sister lower court were already on an indefinite strike, joining colleagues from other tribunals who suspended work last week to protest what they saw as Morsi's assault on the judiciary.
The last time Egypt had an all-out strike by the judiciary was in 1919, when judges joined an uprising against British colonial rule.
The standoff began when Morsi issued decrees on Nov. 22 giving him near-absolute powers that granted himself and the Islamist-dominated assembly drafting the new constitution immunity from the courts.
The constitutional panel then raced in a marathon session last week to vote on the charter's 236 clauses without the participation of liberal and Christian members. The fast-track hearing pre-empted a decision from the Supreme Constitutional Court that was widely expected to dissolve the constituent assembly.
The judges on Sunday postponed their ruling on that case just before they went on strike.
Without a functioning justice system, Egypt will be plunged even deeper into turmoil. It has already seen a dramatic surge in crime after the uprising, while state authority is being challenged in many aspects of life and the courts are burdened by a massive backlog of cases.
"The country cannot function for long like this, something has to give," said Negad Borai, a private law firm director and a rights activist. "We are in a country without courts of law and a president with all the powers in his hands. This is a clear-cut dictatorial climate," he said.
Mohamed Abdel-Aziz, a rights lawyer, said the strike by the judges will impact everything from divorce and theft to financial disputes that, in some cases, could involve foreign investors.
"Ordinary citizens affected by the strike will become curious about the details of the current political crisis and could possibly make a choice to join the protests," he said.
The Judges Club, a union with 9,500 members, said late Sunday that judges would not, as customary, oversee the national referendum Morsi called for Dec. 15 on the draft constitution hammered out and hurriedly voted on last week.
The absence of their oversight would raise more questions about the validity of the vote. The judges say they will remain on strike until Morsi rescinds his decrees, which the Egyptian leader said were temporary and needed to protect the nation's path to democratic rule.