By Hamza Hendawi and Sarah El Deeb
CAIRO — More than 200,000 people packed Cairo’s central Tahrir square on Tuesday, chanting against Egypt’s Islamist president in a powerful show of strength by the opposition demanding Mohammed Morsi revoke edicts granting himself near autocratic powers.
With the mass protests in Tahrir and in several other cities — comparable in size to those during last year’s uprising that overthrew autocrat Hosni Mubarak — opposition to the decrees issued last week turned into a broader outpouring of anger against the rule of Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood.
Waving Egypt’s red, white and black flags, crowds of protesters marched across Cairo to stream into the iconic central plaza, birthplace of the anti-Mubarak uprising. By the evening, it was thronging with a crowd that appeared to be more than 200,000. Clashes broke out in several cities as Morsi opponents tried to attacked offices of the Brotherhood, setting fire to at least one.
Ringing out at Tahrir was the central chant of the Arab Spring revolts: “The people want to bring down the regime,” and “erhal, erhal” — Arabic for “leave, leave.”
“Suddenly Morsi is issuing laws and becoming the absolute ruler, holding all powers in his hands,” said protester Mona Sadek, a 31-year-old engineering graduate who wears the Islamic veil, a hallmark of piety. “Our revolt against the decrees became a protest against the Brotherhood as well.”
But Gehad el-Haddad, a senior adviser to the Brotherhood and its political party, said the opposition was “very divided” and that Morsi would not back down. “We are not rescinding the declaration,” he told The Associated Press. Morsi’s edicts effectively neutralize the judiciary, which was the only branch of government in a position to balance Morsi, who holds not only executive but also legislative authority.
The staunch stand taken by Morsi and his Brotherhood sets the stage for a drawn-out battle with the opposition that could paralyze the nation at a time when its economic woes are deepening, security continues to be tenuous and strikes by an entire spectrum of white and blue collar workers show no sign of abating.
Protest organizers on a stage in the square called for another mass rally on Friday. If the Brotherhood responds with mass rallies of its own, as some of its leaders have hinted, it would raise the prospect of greater violence after a series of clashes between the two camps in recent days.
Even as the crowds swelled in Tahrir, clashes erupted nearby between several hundred young protesters throwing stones and police firing tear gas on a street off Tahrir leading to the U.S. Embassy. Clouds of tear gas hung close to the ground at the area. Clashes have been taking place at the site for several days, fueled by anger over police abuses, separately from the crisis over Morsi.
A photographer working for the AP, Ahmed Gomaa, was heavily beaten by police using sticks while covering the clashes Tuesday. Police took his equipment, and Gomaa was taken to hospital for treatment.
In the Nile Delta industrial city of Mahalla el-Kobra, workers and activists tried to storm the headquarters of the Brotherhood’s political party, but were blocked by Brotherhood members who formed a human chain around the building. The two sides clashes, pelting each other with stones and fire bombs as police fired tear gas in violence that security officials said left 100 injured.
Rival rallies by Morsi opponents and supporters turned into brief clashes in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria, then anti-Morsi protesters broke into the local office of the Muslim Brotherhood, throwing furniture out the windows and trying unsuccessfully to set fire to it. Protesters also set fire to Brotherhood offices in the city of Mansoura.
The edicts have energized the liberal and secular opposition after months of divisions and uncertainty while Islamists from the Muslim Brotherhood and other groups rose to dominate the political landscape.
But the backlash has been further fueled by broader anger over what critics see as the Brotherhood’s monopolizing of power after its election victories the past year for parliament and the presidency.
Raafat Magdi, an engineer, said, “We want to change this whole setting. The Brotherhood hijacked the revolution.”
“People woke up to his (Morsi’s) mistakes, and in any new elections they will get no votes,” said Magdi, who was among a crowd of around 10, 000 marching from the Cairo district of Shubra to Tahrir to the beat of drums and chants against the Brotherhood. Reform leader Mohammed ElBaradie led the march.
Former presidential candidate Amr Moussa, now a prominent opposition leader, said the protest showed “where the nation’s political forces stand on the constitutional declaration.”
“Wisdom dictates that the declaration must be reconsidered,” Moussa, a former Arab League chief, told the private CBC TV station by telephone.
Morsi says the decrees are necessary to protect the “revolution” and the nation’s transition to democratic rule.
His declaration made all his decisions immune to judicial review and banned the courts from dissolving the upper house of parliament and an assembly writing the new constitution, both of which are dominated by Islamists. The decree also gave Morsi sweeping authority to stop any “threats” to the revolution, public order or state institutions. The powers would last until the constitution is approved and parliamentary elections are held, not likely before spring 2013.
The decrees, said the Brotherhood spokesman el-Haddad, “cemented the way forward” by protecting the assembly and upper house.
In a series of Tweets, the Brotherhood dismissed the rallies, saying even while the square was packed that the turnout was “low” and showed a lack of support for the opposition.
Morsi’s supporters canceled a massive rally they had planned for Tuesday in Cairo, citing the need to “defuse tension” after a series of clashes between the two camps since the decrees were issued Thursday. Morsi’s supporters say more than a dozen of their offices have been ransacked or set ablaze since Friday. Some 5,000 demonstrated in the southern city of Assiut in support of Morsi’s decrees, according to witnesses there.
The opposition says the decrees give Morsi near dictatorial powers by neutralizing the judiciary at a time when he already holds executive and legislative powers. Leading judges have also denounced the measures.
But many who joined Tuesday’s protests lashed out more broadly against the rule of Morsi, who came to office in June as Egypt’s first freely elected president. For months, criticism has been growing that Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists are monopolizing power in the government and trying to dictate the next constitution while not doing enough to tackle the country’s multiple economic and security woes.
Reda Hassan, owner of a car parts shop, said he voted for Morsi in this past summer’s election, but “he fooled us. He did nothing since he was elected. … Now Tahrir says go away.”
A fellow protester, Saad Salem Nada, said, “I am a Muslim and he made me hate Muslims because of the dictatorship in the name of religion. In the past, we had one Mubarak, now we have hundreds,” referring to the Brotherhood.
On Monday, Morsi met with the nation’s top judges and tried to win their acceptance of his decrees. But the move was dismissed by many in the opposition and the judiciary as providing no real concessions.
Morsi told the judges that he acted within his rights as the nation’s sole source of legislation, assuring them that the decrees were temporary and did not in any way infringe on the judiciary, according to presidential spokesman Yasser Ali, who said the president had no plans to change or amend his decrees.
According to a presidential statement late Monday, Morsi told the judges that his decree meant that any decisions he makes on “issues of sovereignty” are immune from judicial review.
The vaguely worded statement did not define those issues, but they were widely interpreted to cover declaration of war, imposition of martial law, breaking diplomatic relations with a foreign nation or dismissing a Cabinet. Morsi’s original edict, however, explicitly gives immunity to all his decisions and there was no sign it had been changed.
Monday’s presidential statement did not touch on the immunity that Morsi gave the constitutional assembly or the upper chamber of parliament, known as the Shura Council. It also did not affect the edict that the president can take any measures he sees as necessary to stop threats to the revolution, stability or public institutions. Many see that edict as granting Morsi unlimited emergency powers.
The Shura Council does not have lawmaking authorities but, in the absence of the more powerful lower chamber, the People’s Assembly, it is the only popularly elected, national body where the Brotherhood and other Islamists have a majority. The People’s Assembly was dissolved by a court ruling in June.
On Tuesday, the influential Judges’ Club, a sort of union led by an outspoken Morsi critic, vowed in a statement to escalate its resistance to the decrees. Judges and prosecutors in some parts of the country held a strike for a third day, leaving many courtrooms empty across the nation.