Thousands of Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi’s opponents gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square for a fifth day on Tuesday to protest a recent decree granting him sweeping powers, in the most divisive crisis since he took power in June.
The protest called by leftist, liberal and socialist groups marks an escalation of the worst crisis since the Muslim Brotherhood politician was elected in June and exposes the deep divide between newly empowered Islamists and their opponents.
Thousands of lawyers left their syndicate chanting, “The people want the downfall of the regime,” -- the signature chant of the protests that toppled Hosni Mubarak last year-- as they made their way to Cairo’s iconic Tahrir Square.
Several other marches were preparing to set off from around the capital to join thousands of protesters already in the square to denounce Morsi’s decree.
In the Mediterranean city of Alexandria, several hundred gathered in Qaitbay square, with two large marches expected to join them later.
“Down with the rule of the Supreme Guide,” they chanted, in reference to the head of the powerful Muslim Brotherhood, on whose ticket Morsi ran for office.
A rival rally in Cairo by the Muslim Brotherhood in support of the president was called off to “avoid potential unrest” but that has done little to abate the division among supporters and foes of Morsi.
“The Muslim Brotherhood stole the revolution” read one banner in Tahrir. Another said the president was “pushing the people to civil disobedience.”
“The Muslim Brotherhood are liars, read another.
Sporadic clashes between police and protesting youths continued into the afternoon near Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
“We will stay in Tahrir until Morsi cancels his declaration,” protester Ahmed Fahmy, 34 told AFP.
At least three people have been killed and hundreds more injured in violence set off by the move that has also triggered a rebellion by judges and battered confidence in an economy struggling to recover from two years of turmoil.
Meeting half way
Rulings from an array of courts this year have dealt a series of blows to the Brotherhood, leading to the dissolution of the first constitutional assembly and the parliament elected a year ago. The Brotherhood had a major say in both.
The judiciary blocked an attempt by Mursi to reconvene the Brotherhood-led parliament after his election victory. It also stood in the way of his attempt to sack the prosecutor general, a Mubarak hold over, in October.
In his decree, Mursi gave himself the power to sack that prosecutor and appoint a new one. In open defiance of Mursi, some judges are refusing to acknowledge that step.
But in a sign that other judges were willing to meet Mursi half way, the Supreme Judicial Council, the nation’s highest judicial body, proposed Mursi limit the scope of decisions that would be immune from judicial review to “sovereign matters”, language the presidential spokesman said Mursi backed.
“The president said he had the utmost respect for the judicial authority and its members,” spokesman Yasser Ali told reporters in announcing the agreement on Monday.
Mursi’s administration has defended his decree as an effort to speed up reforms and complete a democratic transformation. Leftists, liberals, socialists and others say it has exposed the autocratic impulses of a man once jailed by Mubarak.
Before the president’s announcement, leftist politician Hamdeen Sabahy said protests would continue until the decree was scrapped and said Tahrir would be a model of an “Egypt that will not accept a new dictator because it brought down the old one”.
Mursi has repeatedly stated the decree will only stay in place until a new parliament is elected - something that can only happen once the constitution is written and passed in a popular referendum.
Though both Islamists and their opponents broadly agree that the judiciary needs reform, his rivals oppose Mursi’s methods.