An Egyptian court suspended on Tuesday the Islamist-dominated commission tasked with drafting a new constitution amid a boycott by liberals, moderate Muslims and the Coptic church.
The administrative court in Cairo said it was "suspending the constituent assembly" without explaining the reasons, but lawyers and liberal political parties had filed a complaint accusing the Islamist-majority parliament, which formed the panel, of having abused its powers.
The decision comes amid a tense stand-off between Islamist and secular forces just six weeks ahead of the country's first post-revolution presidential elections.
Mohammed Nur Farhat, a lawyer and official of the liberal Social Democratic Party, said the "constitutional commission has been made null and void by this judicial decision and may not continue its work.
"Parliament must meet to re-form the constitutional commission, and we invite it to begin setting out the criteria that will guarantee an equitable representation of social and political forces, so that it is not dominated by a single political current," he added.
The 100-member panel, which is evenly divided between parliamentarians and public figures, was elected by the parliament, which also voted for a number of reserve candidates who could replace the panelists.
But most of its members are from the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist fundamentalists who hold the majority in both houses of parliament.
The head of the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, Mohammed Mursi, said the FJP would not appeal Tuesday's decision.
"The Freedom and Justice Party fully respects the decisions of the Egyptian judiciary, including the decision by the administrative court to suspend the constituent assembly," Mursi said in a statement.
He said the FJP was ready to cooperate with all parties and groups in drafting a charter "that reflects all Egyptians."
The secular parties had already withdrawn from the commission, believing that their presence was only used as a smoke screen allowing the Islamists to draft a basic law that reflects their political-religious ideologies.
The prestigious Sunni Islamic institution, Al-Azhar, and the Coptic Orthodox Church of Egypt have also decided to boycott the panel.
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Islamists believe the commission should reflect the composition of a parliament where the FJP holds nearly half the seats and the Salafist Al-Nur party almost one quarter.
The secularists want a more balanced commission, fearing that the Islamist grip would lead to the strengthening of a demand for Islamic sharia law to be the point of reference for legislation.
On Tuesday, around 150 people demonstrated outside the State Council, which has the power to rule on administrative disputes, to protest against Islamist control of the constitutional project.
One banner proclaimed: "The constitution is not a matter of majorities. Egypt will remain a civil state."
Another read: "There are (entities) that cannot be trusted -- the army and the Muslim Brotherhood."
A junta known as the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has ruled Egypt since a popular uprising toppled long-time president Hosni Mubarak in February 2011.
The SCAF is overseeing the transition to democratic civilian rule, which has already seen the election of a new parliament and will see presidential elections beginning in late May.
When the Coptic church, whose faithful make up about 10 percent of Egypt's population, withdrew from the panel its Holy Synod said it considered it "inappropriate to continue to be represented given the reservations of various political forces on how the constitutional commission was composed."
Egypt's Supreme Constitutional Court also pulled out, expressing "doubts and confusion" over the make-up of the panel," while Al-Azhar said it did not consider itself properly represented.
In principle, the panel has up to six months to draft a new constitution to replace the one suspended by the military when it took power last year.
The decision to suspend the panel comes amid uncertainties over who will actually be permitted to run for Egypt's presidency, after registration of candidacies closed on Sunday.
The election is scheduled for May 23 and 24, raising fears among many of having to elect a president whose powers have not been defined.
A provisional list of candidates includes ex-Arab League chief Amr Mussa, ultra-conservative Islamist preacher Hazem Abu Ismail, the Brotherhood's Khairat El-Shater, ex-Brotherhood member Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh, Mubarak's last premier Ahmed Shafiq, and former intelligence chief Omar Suleiman.