Egyptian judges have taken a provisional decision to abstain from their task as election supervisors this year if the government fails to guarantee them full oversight of the process.
The tough position, taken by consensus on Friday at a four-hour meeting attended by about 3000 judges, adds to the pressure on the government and on President Hosni Mubarak, who is widely expected to seek a fifth six-year term in September.
Presidential elections in the absence of judges could violate the constitution, which requires judicial supervision.
The judges also tied their cooperation on elections to the government's response to their separate demand for a draft law on the judiciary that ensures independence from the executive.
Also on Friday, Egyptian security authorities detained and later freed eight members of Aljazeera's Cairo bureau.
The television news crew was preparing to cover the Judges' Club's extraordinary meeting.
At the meeting, club chairman Zakaria Abd al-Aziz said: "If there is no response to our demands on both issues ... we will have absolved ourselves of responsibility before the people for supervising the elections."
A succession of judges told the meeting the executive had rigged all previous elections and had then cited judicial supervision as proof they were free and fair. The government says voting irregularities are isolated incidents.
"The executive interferes to obtain specific results, making people whom it likes win and making others lose," Alexandria Judges' Club president Mahmud el-Khudairi told Aljazeera later.
An increasing number of political
rallies demand election reform
In a summary of the past experiences of judges as election supervisors, Abd al-Aziz said police had surrounded some polling stations to prevent people from voting.
Security officials had coerced election officials to let thousands of people vote at other polling stations with minimal control over their eligibility. Some people had been able to
vote in the name of people who were dead, he added.
In previous elections, the judges have not been able to supervise many aspects of the process, such as the registration of voters and activities around polling stations.
If the government makes concessions to their point of view, the judges will meet again on 2 September, before the presidential vote, to decide whether to go ahead with the plan to abstain from supervision, the meeting on Friday decided.
On the judiciary law, the judges are demanding a budget separate from that of the Justice Ministry and an independent system for inspecting their performance. They say the ministry abuses the budget to reward and punish judges.
"The executive interferes to obtain specific results, making people whom it likes win and making others lose"
Alexandria Judges' Club President
Before the meeting, hundreds of rival protesters, for and against Mubarak, rallied close to the Judges' Club in central Cairo to put pressure on the meeting.
The Ghad (Tomorrow) Party, which plans to field leader Ayman Nur against Mubarak in September, backed what it called a firm stand by the judges.
The Arab Committee for the Defence of Journalists in a statement on Friday described the detention of Aljazeera's crew as repressive and urged the Egyptian government to recognise growing demands for freedoms.
Aljazeera's correspondent Samir Omar said the crew had an agreement with the Judges' Club to cover their meeting live, but the security authorities tried to persuade them not to.
"We tried all means possible to convince them to let us work in an objective and neutral manner and report about the meeting, but unfortunately we were arrested," he said.
"We were held for seven hours in a spacious office of one of the top security officers and told again why we were arrested and that was to prevent us from reporting about the judges' meeting," he said.
"Some security officers bid us farewell, and even apologised to us, saying they only wanted to prevent us from reporting about the meeting," Omar added.