CAIRO — Tens of thousands of protesters massed outside the presidential palace and in Tahrir Square in Cairo on Tuesday, as Egyptians voiced their opposition to President Mohamed Morsi for a 12th straight day.
The deepening political crisis has pitted Morsi, the country’s first democratically elected president, and his Islamist backers against a broad alliance of young liberals, judges, human rights groups and loyalists of the former government.
Morsi ignited a wave of protest Nov. 22 when he granted himself far-reaching powers to legislate without judicial oversight, a move that his opponents say amounted to a dictatorial power grab.
Protests rarely approach the presidential palace, and opposition members billed Tuesday’s demonstration as an “important step” in escalating pressure on the president to rescind his decree.
Thousands pressed against the palace gates amid thunderous chants of “We won’t leave! He should leave!” Some climbed atop the military vehicles that ringed the complex and spray-painted anti-Islamist slogans on the walls.
Protesters clashed sporadically with security forces using tear gas outside the palace and near Tahrir Square on Tuesday night. Witnesses said some of the riot police appeared to join the crowd, underscoring what they said was opposition to Morsi within his security services.
Morsi did not comment on the unrest but left the presidential compound during the protest, the Reuters news agency reported. The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, which often serves as Morsi’s mouthpiece, said on the group’s Web site that perpetrators of violence or vandalism in the day’s protest would be held accountable.
The Islamists and their opponents have described Egypt’s deepening crisis, which centers on a draft of the new constitution, as a battle for the country’s soul and the success of its faltering transition to democracy.
Morsi set a date of Dec. 15 for a national referendum on the draft after the Islamist-dominated assembly tasked with writing it rushed to approve it last week, deepening the political rift over his decree and leaving the opposition divided over what to do if the referendum is carried out.
On Tuesday, protesters said they saw the escalation outside the palace as essential if they were to force Morsi to back down from the decree, as well as from the constitutional draft that they deem illegitimate.
Opposition to the decree by senior justice officials had threatened to undermine the administration’s ability to hold a referendum on the document. On Monday, however, the Supreme Judicial Council agreed to oversee the process, clearing the way for the Dec. 15 vote and creating the possibility of legal credibility for the results.
Even as protesters kept up their demands and a handful of independent news organizations began a symbolic media blackout to show their objection to the draft, opposition leaders remained divided Tuesday on whether to boycott the referendum or simply vote no.
“We cannot grant any legitimacy to a wholly illegitimate process,” said Shadi al-Ghazali Harb, a prominent youth activist and a member of the liberal Constitution Party, who was protesting in Tahrir Square on Tuesday night. But Harb said that if the judiciary agreed to supervise the vote, the opposition’s stance could change.
Morsi’s supporters have defended the decree as a necessary step toward democracy, saying it shielded the constitution-writing assembly from dissolution by a judiciary still stacked with holdovers from the government of Hosni Mubarak.
But his opponents say the move threatens to return Egypt to authoritarian rule less than two years after a popular uprising ended Mubarak’s 30-year reign.
“Today’s march is a very important step,” said Mustafa el-Soweisy, a university student from Suez who joined the crowd outside the presidential palace. Soweisy and other opposition members vowed wider action if the standoff continued.
“If Morsi continues with his obstinacy, there will be another course — a course of escalation, of civil disobedience and strikes,” he said.
Ingy Hassieb contributed to this report.