CAIRO — Egyptian opposition forces rallied across the country Tuesday in the biggest show of dissent against the country’s first democratically elected leader since he precipitated a political crisis last week with an apparent bid to assume near-absolute power.
A loose coalition of rights groups, liberals and secularists poured into Cairo’s Tahrir Square and other public spaces, urging President Mohamed Morsi to rescind a decree he issued Thursday that granted him the authority to legislate without judicial oversight.
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.
“There are almost two Egypts out there. There is the Egypt in Tahrir, and there is the Egypt outside,” said Yasser el-Shimi, an Egypt analyst for the International Crisis Group. Beyond the centers of protest, and particularly beyond Cairo, Shimi said, popular support Tuesday still seemed to favor the elected Islamists.
Analysts say that a compromise on Morsi’s decree is likely but that annulling it would cost the president his credibility.
The Brotherhood’s supporters said Tuesday that Morsi was unlikely to back down from his decree, even as sporadic clashes erupted between anti-Morsi protesters and security forces in Cairo and the northern city of Mahallah al-Kubra, and a broad coalition of judges continued a strike to protest the curbing of judicial powers.
The Brotherhood called off its own demonstrations Tuesday, hoping to avert violent clashes, Brotherhood officials said. Local media reported clashes between Brotherhood supporters and opponents in Alexandria and at least two cities in Egypt’s Nile Delta when the latter attacked Brotherhood offices.
But Morsi’s unwillingness to back down from his decree also highlighted the conviction held by both sides that five days into Egypt’s latest political stalemate, their group represents the majority.
“I do not think President Morsi will rescind the constitutional declaration no matter how big the protests get” on Tuesday, said Haitham Abdelmoneim, a Brotherhood official in Qalyubiya, north of Cairo. “Our readings of the public opinion suggest that people support the constitutional declaration,” he said.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s Twitter handle, Ikhwanweb, tweeted a flood of messages on Tuesday pushing the idea that the Islamists still hold popular sway in the country of 85 million. “Opposition thinks the significance of today is # of Tahrir protestors (200-300k), they shld brace for millions in support of the elected prez,” the group tweeted Tuesday evening.
Shimi said that even as thousands packed into Tahrir Square on Tuesday night, it remained to be seen whether they could muster the clout to force any serious concessions.
“We’ve seen a much more intransigent liberal opposition, which pretty much wants to have it my way or the highway,” he said, adding that if the thousands of protesters remained in Tahrir, they would have the ability to turn themselves into a pressure group.
But electoral politics and grass-roots organization have proved far more effective means of mobilizing the masses since last year’s uprising, he said.
“That’s why the Islamists have been able to win one election after another,” he said.
Ingy Hassieb contributed to this report.