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Angry protesters fill Tahrir Square
CAIRO — Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators gathered Tuesday in the center of Cairo to protest their democratically elected president’s recent decrees granting himself near-absolute power, chanting slogans against the Muslim Brotherhood and accusing him of trying to become Egypt’s new dictator.
Protesters filled Tahrir Square — the heart of Egypt's 2011 revolution — and called on President Mohammed Morsi to step down in a scene reminiscent of the popular uprising that led to the ouster of longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak in February 2011. Massive protests were held in other cities throughout the country.
"It's a Mubarak-style policy he's using," said Mohamed Yehia, a 35-year-old accountant protesting in Cairo.
In several clashes throughout the day, police fired tear gas on demonstrators while being pelted with rocks, as thunderous Arabic chants of "Leave" and "Down with the rule of the Supreme Guide [Muslim Brotherhood]" echoed through the square. Clashes broke out in several cities as Morsi opponents tried to attack offices of the Brotherhood and set fire to at least one, The Associated Press reported.
"The Brotherhood stole the country," read one banner at the square — held by groups of protesters, including mostly liberal and secular political opposition parties, activist groups and many who had never before engaged in protests.
An estimated 200,000 demonstrators rallied in Tahrir Square into the evening, waving the red, black and white Egyptian flag.
The Muslim Brotherhood originally planned to hold a counterdemonstration but decided against it to reduce the risk of violent clashes with opposition figures.
Not backing down
Anti-government activists claim that the decrees Mr. Morsi issued late Thursday — giving him the power to override the judiciary and make decisions from judicial review — are tantamount to the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood’s undoing of a revolution aimed at returning power to the Egyptian people.
Opposition politicians have accused the president of bolstering his own powers and those of his Islamist cohorts to dictatorial proportions, noting that the Muslim Brotherhood dominates Egypt’s parliament and the Constituent Assembly, which is tasked with writing the country’s new constitution.
The drafting of the constitution has stalled over several issues including the role of Islamic law, the rights of women and presidential powers. Most of the liberal and secular members of the 100-member assembly have walked out.
Mr. Morsi, who announced his new powers after he helped broker a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip, has said his decrees are necessary to shield Egypt from "threats against the revolution."
Under the decrees, the upper house of parliament and the Constituent Assembly cannot be dissolved.
Gehad el-Haddad, a senior adviser to the Brotherhood and its political party, said the opposition is "very divided" and that Mr. Morsi will not back down. "We are not rescinding the declaration," he told the AP.
Members of Egypt's judiciary have condemned Mr. Morsi's move as a power grab and an assault on the judicial branch of government.
Hundreds of lawyers gathered Tuesday outside their union building in downtown Cairo to rail against Mr. Morsi before heading to Tahrir Square to join protesters there.
Meanwhile, judges and lawyers in several places across the country held a strike for a third consecutive day, and the Judges' Club, a union for jurists, said it would intensify its opposition to the decrees.
Backed into a corner?
On Monday, Mr. Morsi tried to assuage Egypt's top judges by saying he did not usurp its authority in his "temporary" action.
According to a presidential statement, he told the judges that his decrees 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.
But Mr. Morsi's original edict explicitly gives immunity to all his decisions, and there was no sign it had been changed.
He has said he will relinquish his new powers after a constitution is enacted and parliamentary elections are held next year.
Human rights lawyers and activists remain unconvinced. They see the maneuver as an attempt to defuse the crisis without offering concrete concessions.
"What will be the case if the constitution doesn't pass the referendum scheduled to take place in a couple of months?" said Mr. Yehia, the accountant protester. "Is Morsi expecting us to live under a new dictatorial regime forever or until, God knows when, Egypt has a constitution?"
Still, some analysts say the decrees were not intended as an attempt to consolidate absolute power but a genuine effort to get the constitution drafting process off the ground.
"I don't think there is any desire [for a dictatorship]; that is a nonsensical statement on the part of opponents," said Maha Azzam, associate fellow at the Middle East and North Africa program at London-based think tank Chatham House. "[Mr. Morsi] wanted to stop the dissolution of the assembly charged with writing the new constitution. … There is a strong feeling of the democratic process being stalled by the constitutional [process] being held back."
Others say that while the decrees might expedite the way to the new constitution, Mr. Morsi’s strategy has been far from perfect.
"You could argue that he doesn't need to assume these powers to urge the Constituent Assembly to get on with its work, set a deadline, etc.," said David Hartwell, a Middle East analyst at IHS, a global intelligence firm in London. "That he didn’t anticipate the reaction calls into question his political foresight — questions about his judgment that lead to accusations that the Brotherhood is trying to seize power through the back door.
"Perhaps he's backed himself into a corner," he added.
More unrest ahead
Ms. Azzam of Chatham House noted that Muslim Brotherhood leaders had called off a rally Tuesday, citing the need to "defuse tensions" between the fighting sides. She said this represents a willingness of the Brotherhood to keep the peace in support of the president.
"They don't want any clashes between opponents," she said.
A spokesman for the Brotherhood said that in some cities outside the capital, supporters were protecting Brotherhood offices. Morsi supporters said more than a dozen of their offices had been ransacked or set ablaze since Friday.
Some 5,000 demonstrated in the southern city of Assiut in support of Mr. Morsi’s decrees, according to witnesses there.
Protest organizers on a stage in the square called for another mass rally 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 camps in recent days.
Opposition protesters warn of a situation that is likely to turn combustible if not resolved.
"If the current situation in Egypt continues, it will lead to more chaos — both the presidency and the Muslim Brotherhood have to understand how dangerous the situation is," said Ahmed Maher, an organizer of the April 6 Youth Movement, a group known for its digital activism.
"We have smelled freedom, and it has made us forget fear," he said. "We want to taste it now."
• Michael Scaturro and Louise Osborne in Berlin contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.
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