Tens of thousands of Egyptian demonstrators encircled the presidential palace Tuesday after riot police failed to keep them at bay with tear gas, in a growing crisis over President Mohamed Morsi’s decree widening his powers.
The protesters cut through barbed wire a few hundred metres (yards) from the palace, prompting police to fire the tear gas before retreating and allowing demonstrators to reach the palace walls, AFP correspondents said.
Morsi himself was not in the palace, a presidential aide told AFP. A security official said “the president of the republic left the Itihadiya palace on schedule after official meetings”.
A video posted online by the Egyptian news network Rassd showed a convoy leaving the palace through a riot police cordon as protesters chanted “coward” and “leave”.
In Tahrir Square, where other protesters had rallied, the spokesman for an alliance of opposition groups, the National Rescue Front, announced a sit-in outside the palace and called for similar actions across the country.
Demonstrators, many from liberal and leftist movements, banged on lamp posts and chanted “leave” in a thunderous show of force.
Most left later in the night, leaving behind roughly two thousand protesters as some set up about a dozen tents for the night outside the palace walls, which had been covered in anti-Morsi graffiti.
In the central province of Minya, clashes flared between opponents and supporters of Morsi outside the headquarters of his Freedom and Justice Party, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Police fired tear gas at the crowd after Morsi opponents tore down a picture of the president, prompting skirmishes with his supporters.
Anti-Morsi protests also erupted in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria and the central province of Sohag, with the spreading unrest prompting US appeals for restraint.
“We would simply urge that protesters express their views peacefully and that they be given the environment… to protest peacefully,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said.
Tuesday’s protests are the latest in a string of actions opposed to Morsi’s November 22 decree, which expanded his powers and enabled him to put to a mid-December referendum a draft constitution drawn up by an Islamist-dominated panel and rejected by liberals, leftists and Christians.
Outside the palace, the demonstrators waved Egyptian flags, chanting for the regime’s downfall and denouncing the Brotherhood for having “sold the revolution” that toppled longtime leader Hosni Mubarak last year.
The draft constitution has become the focal point of a political and ideological battle between Islamists and the largely secular-leaning opposition.
“Egypt is a country where all religions should live together. I love God’s law and sharia (Islamic law) but I will vote against the constitution because it has split the people,” Bassam Ali Mohammed, an Islamic law professor, said as he neared the palace.
— Thousands in Tahrir Square —
Thousands also gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, where protesters have been camping out since Morsi issued his constitutional declaration.
The decree placed Morsi’s decisions beyond judicial oversight and barred any judicial body from dissolving the panel that drew up and approved the draft charter, sparking a conflict with judges.
Independent and opposition newspapers refused to publish Tuesday editions in protest at a lack of press freedom in the constitution. The move was in order to “stand up to tyranny”, independent daily Al-Tahrir said on its website.
Morsi, who took office in June, insists the measures are aimed at ending a tumultuous transition following the 2011 uprising.
But his opponents have accused him of choosing the same path of autocracy that finally cost Mubarak his presidency.
The decision to go to a referendum on December 15 caused further upheaval, including within the judiciary itself.
On Monday, the Supreme Judicial Council said it would ensure judicial supervision of the referendum, despite calls for a boycott by some colleagues, including the influential Judges Club that represents judges nationwide.
On Tuesday, the head of the Judges Club, Ahmed al-Zind, stuck by his group’s decision to boycott the vote and said judges who supervise the referendum “would never be forgiven”.