Tens of thousands of Egyptians chanting slogans of opposition to President Mohamed Mursi converged on Cairo’s Tahrir Square to protest a decree by the Islamist giving him broad new powers.
Protesters occupying the plaza, which served as the epicenter of last year’s uprising against then-President Hosni Mubarak, likened Mursi to his ousted predecessor and demanded that he rescind the Nov. 22 edict that shields his decisions from judicial review. Close to the nearby U.S. Embassy, demonstrators clashed with police in a haze of tear gas and hail of thrown rocks. Elsewhere, at least 101 people were injured in clashes in the town of Mahala, the state-run Middle East News Agency reported, citing Gharbiya provincial health chief Mohamed Sharshar.
The protest, billed by the participants as protecting the aims of last year’s revolution, marked a bid by secularists and others to unify after their diverging interests and failure to mobilize supporters enabled Mursi and Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood to dominate Egyptian politics. Smaller protests are also being held in cities outside Cairo.
“No one group, like the Muslim Brotherhood, can control and dominate Egypt,” Ayman el-Leithy, a 47-year-old accountant, said in an interview in the square. He said he came to Tahrir to send a message to Mursi: “Anyone who wants to rule as a dictator is not fit to rule Egypt.”
As night fell, thousands continued pouring into the plaza, some yelling: “We will not leave, let him leave,” and the “people want to topple the regime,” in an echo of the protests that brought down Mubarak last year.
On the eve of the demonstration, Mursi sought to calm opposition to his decree, with his spokesman, Yasser Ali, telling reporters it applied only to “sovereign” matters. Critics such as Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei said Mursi had become a new “pharaoh.”
Six days of often violent protests left one teenage member of the Brotherhood dead in the Nile delta city of Damanhour. In addition, the Socialist Popular Alliance said on its Facebook page one of its members died in a Cairo hospital today of complications relating to tear-gas inhalation.
Ali’s remarks, which came after Mursi met with top judges, show a “lack of understanding of what the people want,” said Mona Amer, a spokeswoman for the opposition Popular Current movement. “It’s not acceptable that after the revolution the regime is still imposing things on us as if no revolution had taken place.”
The decree heightened the concerns of secularists and minority Christians that the Brotherhood plans to impose its Islamist vision on the Arab world’s most populous nation. Protesters want Mursi to rescind the edict, fire the interior minister and replace the Islamist-dominated committee drafting the new constitution, Amer said.
Following a suspension of work, hundreds of members of the judiciary and prosecutors started a sit-in today at the powerful Judge’s Club, MENA reported. The decree was seen by many of the judges as infringing their oversight role. Ali said Mursi told judges yesterday he respected the judiciary’s independence and stressed the edict was temporary.
The rally in Cairo shows how much legitimacy Mursi, who was fielded by the Brotherhood for the presidency, has lost in the eyes of the opposition, said Hani Sabra, an analyst with the Eurasia Group.
Mursi seems to believe that the non-Islamists who helped shepherd him to a win over rival Ahmed Shafik are “a small enough number that they can be sidelined,” Sabra said by phone from Cairo.
“I think he believes he can sustain a few days of angry protests, but that ultimately this won’t pose a serious threat to him or his leadership,” Sabra said. “From his perspective, he believes he has popular legitimacy and can still” issue these kinds of decrees. “Whether or not he does, that fact remains to be seen.”
The protesters included members of a broad spectrum of political parties and groups, including the Free Egyptians that was founded by billionaire Naguib Sawiris, as well as the April 6 youth group movement, the Social Democrats, the Popular Alliance, the Egyptian Press Syndicate. Former presidential hopeful Abdel-Momeim Aboul-Fotouh, the Islamist founder of the Strong Egypt party, issued a statement calling on members to join the protests.
Egypt’s benchmark EGX 30 dropped as much as 1.1 percent amid the protests and closed the day little changed.
The decree by Egypt’s first democratically elected civilian president also gave the panel drafting the constitution immunity from the courts -- a move that potentially spared it the same fate that befell its now-disbanded predecessor. Several cases have been filed against the committee in the courts.
The Brotherhood canceled a counter-rally in Cairo today to avert violence, said Ahmed Sobea, media adviser for the Brotherhood’s political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party.
“Some people are trying to use the president’s decrees to create a political crisis,” he said by phone.
Shafik, who lost to Mursi in the presidential runoff in June and is facing corruption charges in Egypt, was cited as saying by Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper that “if Mursi and the Brotherhood insist on imposing this decree and not going back on irrational actions, they will be faced with a revolution against them soon.”