Opponents of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi rallied in Cairo’s Tahrir Square for a fifth day yesterday, stepping up calls to scrap a decree they say threatens Egypt with a new era of autocracy.
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.
The crowd was expected to grow but hundreds were already in the square after many camped overnight. Police fired tear gas and organizers urged demonstrators not to clash with security forces.
A Muslim Brotherhood activist has been killed and hundreds more injured in violence set off by a move that has also triggered a rebellion by judges and battered confidence in an economy struggling to recover from two years of turmoil.
Morsi’s opponents have accused him of behaving like a modern-day pharaoh. The US, a big benefactor to Egypt’s military, has voiced its concerns, worried by more turbulence in a country that has a peace treaty with Israel.
The protest will test the extent to which Egypt’s non-Islamist opposition can rally support. The Islamists have consistently beaten more secular parties at the ballot box in elections held since former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was toppled in February last year.
“We don’t want a dictatorship again. The Mubarak regime was a dictatorship. We had a revolution to have justice and freedom,” Ahmed Husseini, 32, said.
Activists have been camped out in Tahrir Square since Friday, blocking it to traffic and clashing intermittently with riot police nearby.
The decree issued by Morsi on Thursday expanded his powers and protected his decisions from judicial review until the election of a new parliament expected in the first half of next year. The New York-based Human Rights Watch has said it gives Morsi more power than the military junta from which he assumed power.
In a bid to ease tensions with judges outraged at the step, Morsi has assured the country’s highest judicial authority that elements of the decree giving his decisions immunity would apply only to matters of “sovereign” importance. Though that should limit it to issues such as a declaration of war, experts say there is room for interpretation.
In another step to avoid more confrontation, the Muslim Brotherhood canceled a mass protest it had called in Cairo for yesterday in support of a decree that has also won the backing of more hardline Islamist groups.
Yet there has been no retreat on other elements of the decree, including a stipulation that the Islamist-dominated body writing a new constitution be protected from legal challenge.
Its popular legitimacy undermined by the withdrawal of most of its non-Islamist members, the assembly faces a raft of court cases from plaintiffs who claim it was formed illegally.
The new system of government to be laid out in the constitution is one of the issues at the heart of the crisis.
Morsi issued the decree a day after his administration won international praise for brokering an end to eight days of violence between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.
Morsi has repeatedly said 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.