CAIRO Tens of thousands of Egyptians descended on central Cairo to challenge new claims to power by President Mohammed Morsi and his Islamist allies, forcing the new leader to manage popular discontent that echoed the protests against the strongman who preceded him.
Activists on Tuesday pitched dozens of tents in Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the revolution that toppled President Hosni Mubarak nearly two years ago, and said they would stay in place until Mr. Morsi rescinds a controversial decree issued last week.
Mr. Morsi said Thursday that his decisions as president would be immune from judicial review, in a decree that would prevent judges from dissolving the committeedominated by Islamist politicians from the powerful Muslim Brotherhood, which Mr. Morsi once ledthat is responsible for drafting a new Egyptian constitution.
In awarding himself expansive powers, Mr. Morsi provoked a popular backlash against him and other Islamists in the government. Similar protests broke out when the military council that ruled after Mr. Mubarak’s ouster moved to take greater control of government just before presidential polls.
Following a series of political maneuvers since Mr. Morsi was elected in June, the president now claims full authority over the country’s military, executive and legislative branches.
Many critics said they believed the main goal of Mr. Morsi’s latest decree was to enable an Islamist-dominated Constituent Assembly, the panel now drafting a new constitution, to push through a charter without opposition from the judiciarythe one arm of government in a position to do so.
Opposition groups united in the streets of Cairo Monday to challenge President Mohammed Morsi, who last week sought to dramatically expand his presidential powers. WSJ’s Sam Dagher reports via #WorldStream.
More than 20 liberal-leaning constitution drafters, angered by what they said was the Islamist majority’s imperious approach, have withdrawn from the Constituent Assembly in the past two weeks.
Mr. Morsi now faces the challenge of how to douse a popular backlash. The protesters gathered in Tahrir Square on Tuesday despite Mr. Morsi’s move on Monday to mollify critics by saying his decree was only temporary and not as expansive as it had been portrayed to be.
“Morsi has made it clear for the past 48 hours that he will not rescind the decree,” said Khaled Fahmy, a political analyst and history professor at the American University in Cairo. “The question is how to reduce it while saving face. My guess is that he will mobilize the Brotherhood public-relations machine.”
Brotherhood leaders canceled a demonstration backing Mr. Morsi planned for Tuesday to avoid a potentially violent confrontation, Brotherhood leaders said.
Muslim Brotherhood, in interviews, statements and on social-networking sites, blamed the turnout on shady foreign forces and former regime cronies paying protesters to oppose their rule. Such explanations have often been used by challenged Arab autocrats.
“We needed this constitutional declaration because there were several conspiracies that were revealed that will bring the country back to square one,” said Gamal Hishmat, a senior member of the Brotherhood’s political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party. Mr. Hishmat didn’t give details about the alleged conspiracies.
Mr. Morsi and the Brotherhood contend that the decree was aimed at cleansing Egypt’s judiciary from ex-regime judges intent on reversing the country’s revolutionary gains.
For many in Egypt, the moves appeared to augur a return to decades of autocracy. Egyptian commentators immediately drew parallels to Gamal Abdel Nasser’s 1969 “massacre of the judges,” when the former Egyptian president invoked revolutionary change to sideline ex-regime justices.
“The protest means we don’t want to create another Mubarak,” said Nigad al-Boraei, a prominent human-rights lawyer. “The only way is to show that we are very angry and to let this president and any other president know that we won’t do whatever they want to do.”
On Tuesday, a half-dozen turbaned independent clerics took to a stage set up in Tahrir Square to assail what they said was the extremist and intolerant version of Islam embraced by the Brotherhood and their Salafist allies in government.
“Hold your head high, you’re in Tahrir, brother Badie won’t rule us,” chanted an activist on the stage, referring to the Brotherhood’s leader Mohammed Badie.
Other protesters recycled chants from the anti-Mubarak protests, such as “The people want the downfall of the regime” and “Leave! Leave!”
“The Brothers have stolen the nation,” read one banner.
The scene in downtown Cairo on Tuesday afternoon settled into a recurring pattern for Egyptian protests. While secular activists, artists and intellectuals armed with anti-Brotherhood and Morsi placards convened in Tahrir Square, teenagers in neighboring Simón Bolivar Square used clubs and rocks to attack police, who responded with tear gas and bird shot.
“I did hope that [Islamists] would embrace what the revolution was all about when it started: We were all in it together,” said Shireen, 38, a painter who came to Tahrir Square on Tuesday, referring to a sense of unity between Islamists and secularists in opposition to Mr. Mubarak. “But they see us as different people that must live like them.”
The Brotherhood said on its website that its party offices across the country were being attacked by hired thugs, known as “baltagiya,” using rocks, Molotov cocktails, sticks and knives. The worst violence occurred in the industrial city of Mahalla al-Kubra, north of Cairo, where 350 Brotherhood youth were injured.
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