Associated Press
In this Sunday, Oct. 21, 2012, photo released by the Egyptian Presidency, Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, second left, observes a military drill dubbed Naval Victory 45, from the frigate Toshka in the Mediterranean sea off the coast of Alexandria, Egypt.

CAIRO — An Egyptian court on Tuesday referred the decision on whether to disband the panel writing the country's new constitution to the highest court — a new twist in an ongoing dispute over the charter that could herald a showdown between Islamists and the top court's secular judges.

Egypt is near the final phase in the critical process of drafting the country's new charter following the uprising last year that toppled autocratic leader Hosni Mubarak.

The work — and the composition — of the 100-member constitutional assembly tasked with writing the draft has been the subject of a fierce debate across the entire political spectrum.

Islamists and liberals are haggling over several disputed articles in the charter, some of which will determine the role of religion in the nation's affairs and the independence of the judiciary.

Supporters of the panel say it was set up by an elected parliament and broadly represents Egypt's political factions. Critics say the process is dominated by majority Islamists, such as the Muslim Brotherhood from which Egypt's new president, Mohammed Morsi, hails, and more radical groups that will enshrine Islamic law as dominant in the constitution.

Instead of ruling on a petition challenging the legitimacy of the panel, which was submitted by liberals, Judge Nazeh Tangho of the High Administrative Court on Tuesday sent the case to Egypt's Supreme Constitutional Court.

His announcement was welcomed by cheers and chants of "God is Great" from Islamist lawmakers in the audience, while liberal rivals shouted: "The people want to cleanse the judiciary."

Tangho gave no explanation for his decision and it remains unclear when the top court could rule on the petition. But experts say the court will look into a law signed by Morsi in July that gave the constitutional panel legal immunity.

The referral sets the stage for a new showdown between the Supreme Constitutional Court, packed with secularist judges, and Egypt's ruling and powerful Brotherhood. The same court dissolved the Brotherhood-led parliament, deemed the election law unconstitutional and turned down Morsi's attempt to restore it upon his election in June.

With the nation increasingly polarized, and mistrust between Islamists and other groups growing, Egypt's judiciary has emerged as a lifeline and final arbiter for settling most disputes.

More than 40 legal challenges have been presented to the country's top administrative court demanding the dissolution of the panel writing the charter.