The rapid finalisation of Egypt’s new constitution by Islamists did little to dampen protests in Cairo as hundreds of thousands occupied Tahrir Square on Friday in a trademark show of strength.
An Islamist-led Constituently Assembly, which was given two more months by President Mohamed Morsi to finish its work, surprisingly approved the final draft charter early Friday following a marathon session that lasted more than 15 hours.
According to analysts, the move was intended to placate activists and anti-Muslim Brotherhood demonstrators angry at what they see as Morsi’s attempt to impose autocratic rule.
The 61-year-old head of state, who hails from the Muslim Brotherhood, stirred controversy last week after issuing a decree that shields his decisions from legal challenge and protects the Constituent Assembly and upper house of parliament from dissolution.
Once a draft constitution is approved via popular referendum, Morsi's decree will be cancelled and his legislative powers transferred to a newly-elected parliament.
However, protests showed no sign of abating. Tahrir Square demonstrators, who are pushing for a 'no' vote in the upcoming referendum, believe the draft constitution neither fulfils the aspirations of Egyptians nor achieves revolutionary objectives.
The Islamists, who perhaps thought finalising the constitution earlier than expected would quell popular anger – since it means Morsi would soon relinquish the powers he just assumed – ended up only adding fuel to the fire.
"Egypt will not be forced to choose between a dictatorial declaration and a rushed constitution written by a fraction of Egyptian society," former presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi, a staunch opponent of the Brotherhood, said after joining protesters in Cairo's iconic square.
"Egypt will not bow down to the will of a few," he added to enthusiastic cheers.
Sabbahi and former Nobel Prize laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, a leading opposition figure, said they would spend the night in Tahrir to support those who had camped out in the square since last Friday to oppose Morsi’s decree.
The opposition has mulled escalating their protests, with some calling for a civil disobedience campaign starting midweek.
Eleven independent newspapers have decided not to go to press on Tuesday in protest against Morsi's decree, while several privately-owned satellite television channels said they would halt broadcasts on Wednesday.
The majority of Egypt’s judges have also continued their strike, casting doubt over the fate of the upcoming referendum on the constitution, which they had been set to monitor.
Several other cities witnessed anti-Morsi protests on Friday, including Alexandria, Mahalla and Assiut.
Clashes to erupt since Morsi announced his decree have so far left two people dead: a Tahrir protester and a Muslim Brotherhood member in the Nile Delta city of Damanhour.
"The president and his Constituent Assembly are currently staging a coup against democracy. Regime legitimacy fast eroding," ElBaradei declared via Twitter on Friday.
Imam supports Morsi
Morsi stressed the temporary nature of his decree during an interview with state television Thursday night, but this failed to allay the worries of many pro-democracy activists, who have likened him to former autocratic leader Hosni Mubarak.
The president had to intervene to contain the anger of some worshippers during Friday prayers in an upscale district of Cairo, when the mosque’s preacher dedicated his sermon to defending Morsi’s latest decisions.
"My dear brother, the one who is angry, please come and explain to me why you are angry. It’s your right and it’s my duty [to explain]," Morsi said in the mosque, drawing applause from worshippers.
"After prayers, we will talk for a few minutes," the president said. "I hope you will all listen."
No less unyielding, the Brotherhood, meanwhile, has vowed to support Morsi’s decree, which it believes is necessary to tackle deep-rooted "judicial corruption" and reform a legal establishment that for decades served the Mubarak regime.
The group initially planned to demonstrate in Tahrir Square on Saturday, but reversed its decision after being warned of possible clashes with anti-Morsi protesters who are maintaining a sit-in in the middle of the square.
Switching venues, the Brotherhood eventually opted to stage its planned Saturday protests in front of Cairo University.
"The constitution is extremely balanced – it walks a fine line between right and left, and the end result is satisfying for the majority," Gehad El-Haddad, senior adviser to the Muslim Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice Party, told Ahram Online.
"We were expecting more, but it’s a big step forward," El-Haddad added. "It cuts the powers that the president had in Egypt's 1971 Constitution in half, and balances them with the power of parliament."
The Brotherhood appears to be flexing its muscles in an effort to show that those who oppose Morsi do not represent the bulk of Egyptians.
It remains to be seen which side will have the final word, as Egypt plunges into uncharted waters nearly five months after Morsi assumed power in the country’s first-ever free presidential elections.