Over 100,000 defiant protesters occupied Cairo's Tahrir Square on Tuesday to demand the cancellation of President Mohamed Morsi's controversial Thursday decree. Egypt’s ruling Islamists, however, showed no sign of backing down, suggesting that continued political deadlock is inevitable.
Facing his most serious domestic test since assuming power on 30 June, Morsi finds himself embroiled in a battle – with leftists, liberals, socialists, and several other influential political sectors – after issuing a decree that would shield his decisions from legal challenge until a new parliament is elected.
His decree also protects the Islamist-dominated Constituent Assembly (tasked with drafting the country's first post-revolution constitution) and the Shura Council (the upper house of Egypt's parliament) from dissolution. It also relieved Egyptian Prosecutor-General Abdel-Meguid Mahmoud of his duties, bringing in Judge Talaat Abdullah as Mahmoud's replacement.
In rallies that remained largely peaceful, thousands took to the streets in Cairo, Alexandria, Assiut, Tanta, Mahalla, Mansoura, Luxor, Suez and Port Said, in scenes reminiscent of last year's 18-day uprising that unseated autocratic leader Hosni Mubarak.
The Nile Delta city of Mahalla, however, witnessed clashes between Morsi's supporters and opponents in front of the office of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP).
"If the decree isn't undone, we will demand that Morsi himself leave. Then we can have new presidential elections," Khaled Metwali, a member of the leftist Democratic Revolutionary Coalition, told Ahram Online.
"We plan to remain in the square until Morsi backtracks on his constitutional decree," Metwali added.
Morsi, backed by Islamist parties and groups, has so far withstood immense pressure to reverse his decision, which has prompted opponents to brand him Egypt's "new Pharaoh."
He has also incurred the wrath of Egypt's judges, many of whom vowed to challenge his decree by calling strikes. Many journalists and lawyers were similarly infuriated by the president's latest move, which they believe poses a threat to democracy.
Thousands of lawyers marched from their syndicate to Tahrir Square, the cradle of last year's revolt, chanting "The people want the fall of the regime" – a slogan frequently heard during Mubarak's final days in power.
The Brotherhood, from which Morsi hails, launched an attack on Morsi's opponents, accusing them of "not caring about the country's national interests."
"On January 25, united Egyptians [Islamists, liberals and leftists] revolted against autocracy, supported by millions across the country. Today is politics," the Islamist group declared on Twitter.
"When ordinary Egyptians across the nation see pro-Mubarak [elements] protesting in Tahrir along with Islamists' rivals, they know this isn't January 25," the group added. "The opposition thinks the significance of today is of Tahrir protestors; they should brace for millions in support of the elected president.”
The Brotherhood had initially planned to hold parallel demonstrations on Tuesday, but backtracked at the last minute to avoid potential clashes with its political rivals.
Morsi’s decree has nevertheless sparked violence in several governorates, which have left three dead so far.
The president's supporters argue that the decree is necessary to tackle deep-rooted judicial corruption; opponents say it will only pave the way for an Islamist dictatorship.
According to Al-Ahram's Arabic-language news website, the Brotherhood’s authoritative Guidance Bureau is mulling measures to appease protesters, but the group has so far refrained from making any public statements to this effect.
A meeting on Monday between Morsi and Egypt's Supreme Judicial Council, the state's highest judicial authority, failed to bear fruit.
Several of the president's advisers, meanwhile, have resigned over the issue, ratcheting up even more pressure on the president who at one time had been jailed by Mubarak.
It remains to be seen whether Morsi and the Brotherhood will be able to contain the outpouring of public anger, especially among the young people who were on the frontlines in the battle to topple Mubarak.
Back to Tahrir
Many of the protesters camping out in the flashpoint square compared Morsi to his autocratic predecessor, with some going so far as to demand he step down only five months after becoming Egypt's first-ever freely elected head of state.
"It's not my first time in Tahrir Square. I'm here to stand against the constitutional declaration and the 'Brotherhoodisation' of Egypt," Asmaa Salem, 40, a member of the Popular Current, told Ahram Online. "Either Morsi cancels the declaration, or we'll topple him like we did Mubarak."
Standing by protesters, several well-known politicians have established a new 'National Salvation Front' – including Nobel Prize laureate Mohamed ElBaradei and former presidential candidates Amr Moussa and Hamdeen Sabbahi – to oppose Morsi's divisive decree.
Protesters are planning to hold another million-man march on Friday, in hopes of exposing Morsi's and the Brotherhood's growing political isolation.
"Egypt is losing every day," presidential adviser and prominent writer Ayman El-Sayad declared as protesters and Morsi supporters braced for renewed confrontations.