CAIRO (Reuters) - Egypt's Justice Minister Ahmed Mekky has resigned in protest at "an assault" on the judiciary by President Mohamed Mursi's Islamist backers, a spokesman said on Sunday, underlining mounting tensions between the judiciary and the executive.
Mekky submitted his resignation to Mursi on Saturday, said the spokesman, Ahmed Salam. It followed a protest on Friday by Mursi's Islamist backers in the Muslim Brotherhood demanding the "purification" of the judiciary.
An outspoken supporter of judicial reform during the rule of deposed President Hosni Mubarak, Mekky was named justice minister in August in the first government appointed by Mursi after his victory in June's presidential election.
He opposes a proposed law under discussion in the Islamist-dominated parliament that critics say would give the government too much control over the make-up of the judiciary, according to local media reports.
Mekky had threatened to resign if it was passed, though the parliament has yet to vote on the law.
His resignation strips the government of a high-profile figure just as Mursi plans a reshuffle seen as an effort to ease tensions and convince the IMF there is enough political consensus on a loan deal vital to easing an economic crisis.
Egypt's economy has been hit by more than two years of turmoil that has scared off tourists and investors and triggered a currency and budget crisis.
The country, which has rapidly been burning through the hard currency reserves it needs to import food to feed its 84 million people, has in recent weeks sought financial support from its Arab allies and key emerging powers.
The United States, which gives about $1.5 billion a year in mainly military aid to Egypt, has grown more critical of the Islamist-led authorities of late, citing a lack of political inclusivity as one of its concerns.
At the time he came to office, Mekky was widely respected as a reformer. But he quickly came under attack from critics who said he had abandoned his principles.
The criticism spiraled in November when Mursi issued a controversial decree which the opposition saw as a power grab. Mekky was caught off guard.
In his resignation letter, Mekky said Friday's protest showed that Mursi's allies now agreed with his opponents on the need for him to step down. "Now is the time to realize my wish of lifting this burden from my shoulders," he wrote.
Thousands of Islamists rallied in Cairo on Friday, calling for the implementation of the new legislation and the removal of judges they see as corrupt remnants of the Mubarak era. The protests triggered clashes in which dozens were injured.
PLANS FOR REFORM HIT POLITICAL REALITY
Mursi's most vocal opponents see the plans for judicial reform as part of a Brotherhood attempt to deepen its control. Denying such accusations, the Brotherhood says the judiciary is in bad need of reform.
"Mekky came to the job with a fairly detailed idea of what he wanted to accomplish that has run up against political reality," said Elijah Zarwan, a Cairo-based political analyst.
"In the context of what looks to be an escalating confrontation between the judiciary and the executive, Mekky thought that this was not the best time to carry out reform."
Friction between the government and the judiciary has been on the rise since March when the Administrative Court ordered the cancellation of a Mursi decree calling for parliamentary elections, forcing a delay in voting due to have begun in April.
A court on Sunday rejected a state appeal against the ruling. Mursi has said the elections may now begin in October.
The Brotherhood points to other court rulings as proof of a judiciary dedicated to thwarting it. These include last year's decision to dissolve the Islamist-led lower house of parliament.
(Reporting by Yasmine Saleh, Tom Perry and Asma Alsharif; Editing by Sophie Hares)