But many also used Tuesday’s mass protests as an opportunity to call for the downfall of Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood backers, underscoring a complex political conflict in the newly democratic country that runs far deeper than the move that Morsi’s opponents have labeled a power grab.
Liberal and secular opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood has built up in recent months around the struggle to draft a new constitution — a document that will define Egypt’s legal framework after a popular uprising ended the 30-year rule of Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
Protests broke out in Cairo on Friday after Morsi issued a “constitutional declaration” protecting the Islamist-dominated constitutional drafting committee and the country’s elected Shura Council against the possibility of a dissolution by Egypt’s supreme court.
Morsi’s spokesman attempted to clarify the measure Monday night, saying that it renders only “acts of sovereignty” immune from judicial appeal. But the explanation failed to satisfy the expanding opposition to the president, which has given rise to an unlikely alliance of liberal youth activists and old regime elites.
As thousands converged on Tahrir Square on Tuesday night, some spoke of the president’s dictatorial overreach, but many also warned of the dangers of Islamic rule and said they wanted to see Morsi ousted.
“Personally, I don’t know much about the constitution. But a veiled woman came up to me and told me that I’d have to wear the veil someday,” said Maiada Mounir, a 27-year-old protester who works in real estate. “So I said I had decided to go out to say that would never happen.”
Tuesday’s protests saw anti-Islamist banners raised and former military men join human rights activists in chanting, “The people want the fall of the regime.”
“I’m here to defend Egypt, an Egypt that has been kidnapped by an illegitimate group,” said Ahmed Taha, a retired general who had joined the Tahrir Square protest with a host of other former military officers.
“The people must continue as one hand in order to topple the Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood must be completely removed from the political scene,” he said. Taha and many others vowed to stay in the square until that goal was achieved.
The rallying cry highlighted the emergence of competing realities in the fledgling democracy, where liberals and secularists say they have been underrepresented in the drafting of the new constitution — although electoral politics suggest otherwise.
Late last year, Egyptians voted a majority Islamist parliament into power. Several months before that, they had voted overwhelmingly to support a referendum that outlined how the constitution-drafting assembly would be formed. And in a national election that monitors said involved few serious violations, they elected Morsi, the candidate of the once-banned Muslim Brotherhood.