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By Paul Taylor and Shaimaa Fayed
CAIRO (Reuters) - Egyptian judges accused President Mohamed Mursi's Muslim Brotherhood on Wednesday of trying to clamp down on judicial independence by conducting a campaign ostensibly aimed at rooting out corruption.
A rift between Egypt's Islamist rulers and the judiciary is steadily widening amid a broader struggle over the future character of the country following the 2011 uprising that overthrew autocratic President Hosni Mubarak.
On Tuesday, Mursi's legal adviser quit in protest at what he said were efforts by the Islamists to force out thousands of judges who they accuse of obstructing laws and elections with a series of rulings that have gone against the government.
About 10,000 judges and other legal figures met in Cairo on Wednesday, the state news agency MENA said, to discuss a proposed law lowering their retirement age.
The bill put forward by the moderate Islamist Wasat Party, an ally of the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, would impose mandatory retirement at 60 instead of 70 for all judges, forcing more than 3,000 out at a stroke.
Ahmed El Zend, head of the Judges Club, attacked demands by the Brotherhood for a "purge" of judges who they say are corrupt remnants of the Mubarak era, and dismissed suggestions that the law would combat graft.
"This is not the aim, I swear it is not. The aim is 'Brotherhood-isation'," he told the gathering, using a term that has become popular in Egypt to describe what opposition sees as the Brotherhood's attempts to monopolise power.
The courts have already overturned a number of laws backed by the Brotherhood and earlier this year cancelled Mursi's decree calling parliamentary elections.
El Zend said judges would invite the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers to visit Egypt to inspect "violations that threatened the judiciary's independence".
As the meeting convened, hundreds of protesters gathered in front of the High Court in Cairo to denounce the proposed bill. "Judges, judges, you are our hope after God," and "Down, down with the rule of the Brotherhood," the protesters chanted.
PURGING THE JUDICIARY
The Brotherhood staged a demonstration last Friday demanding the judiciary be purged. At least 115 people were injured during the protest in clashes between Islamists and their opponents.
In a highly critical letter of resignation, Mursi's legal adviser Mohamed Fouad Gadalla reinforced opposition charges that the Brotherhood is trying to monopolise power in the country.
The letter, published by the state-owned daily Al-Ahram, went beyond attacking what Gadalla called "the assassination of the judiciary" and levelled a series of damaging accusations against the president and the Brotherhood.
A spokesman for Mursi told a news conference the letter expressed personal opinions and the presidency would not comment on them. Mursi denies the Brotherhood exercises influence over him. He said in an interview with Al Jazeera last week that "there was no room to talk of influence or pressure".
Gadalla, the president's longest serving adviser, listed seven reasons for quitting, including "the lack of a clear vision for managing the country and achieving the goals of the revolution", and "the monopoly of a single current on managing the transition".
He accused the Brotherhood, of which Mursi was a senior member, of shutting all other political groups out of decision-making, refusing to share responsibility or draw on experienced, efficient officials in government.
He faulted the president for refusing to fire Prime Minister Hisham Kandil, a colourless former water engineer, or strengthen a government he said was "failing politically, economically and on security".
Presidential spokesman Ehab Fahmy said Kandil would keep his job in a limited cabinet reshuffle to be announced within days to strengthen ministries' performance.
Gadalla said he had advised Mursi against a divisive decree last year giving himself temporary powers to override the judiciary and push through an Islamist-tinged constitution, which triggered violent protests and polarised Egyptian politics.
Al-Ahram said Gadalla was the 11th out of 17 presidential advisers to quit or be fired since Mursi took office last July.
The secular, liberal and leftist National Salvation Front opposition alliance has accused the Islamists of aiming to seize control of the judiciary and trampling on its independence with a draft law presented to parliament.
(Additional reporting by Asma Alsharif, Yasmine Saleh and Alexander Diazdosz; Writing by Paul Taylor and David Stamp; Editing by Alison Williams and Jon Hemming)