TENS OF THOUSANDS of Egyptian demonstrators have encircled the presidential palace after riot police failed to keep them at bay with tear gas, in a growing crisis over President Mohamed Morsi’s decree widening his powers.
The protesters cut through barbed wire a few hundred metres (yards) from the palace, prompting police to fire the tear gas before retreating and allowing demonstrators to reach the palace walls, AFP correspondents said.
Morsi himself was not in the palace, a presidential aide told AFP. A security official said “the president of the republic left the Itihadiya palace on schedule after official meetings”.
A video posted online by the Egyptian news network Rassd showed a convoy leaving the palace through a riot police cordon as protesters chanted “coward” and “leave.”
The demonstrators, many from liberal and leftist movements, banged on lamp posts as others chanted “leave” in a thunderous show of force.
In the central province of Minya, clashes flared between opponents and supporters of Morsi outside the headquarters of his Freedom and Justice Party, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Police fired tear gas at the crowd after Morsi opponents tore down a picture of the president, prompting skirmishes with his supporters.
Anti-Morsi protests also erupted in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria and the central province of Sohag, with the spreading unrest prompting US appeals for restraint.
“We would simply urge that protesters express their views peacefully and that they be given the environment … to protest peacefully,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said.
Protesters around the palace began leaving as 11 pm (9pm GMT) approached.
Today’s protests are the latest in a string of action opposed to Morsi’s decree which expanded his powers and enabled him to rush through a draft constitution drawn up by an Islamist-dominated panel.
Outside the palace, the demonstrators waved Egyptian flags, chanting for the regime’s downfall and denouncing the Brotherhood for having “sold the revolution” that toppled longtime leader Hosni Mubarak last year.
A November 22 decree issued by Morsi expanding his powers and enabling him to put to a mid-December referendum the draft constitution — rejected by liberals, leftists and Christians — has sparked strikes and deadly protests.
The charter has become the focal point of a political and ideological battle between Islamists and the largely secular-leaning opposition.
“Egypt is a country where all religions should live together. I love God’s law and sharia (Islamic law) but I will vote against the constitution because it has split the people,” Bassam Ali Mohammed, an Islamic law professor, said as he neared the palace.
Thousands also gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square — where protesters have been camping out since Morsi issued his constitutional declaration.
The decree placed Morsi’s decisions beyond judicial oversight and barred any judicial body from dissolving the panel that drew up and approved the draft charter, sparking a conflict with judges.
Independent and opposition newspapers refused to publish Tuesday editions in protest at a lack of press freedom in the constitution. The move was in order to “stand up to tyranny,” independent daily Al-Tahrir said on its website.
Morsi, who took office in June, insists the measures are aimed at ending a tumultuous transition following the 2011 uprising.
But his opponents have accused him of choosing the same path of autocracy that finally cost Mubarak his presidency.
The decision to go to a referendum on December 15 caused further upheaval, including within the judiciary itself.
On Monday, the Supreme Judicial Council said it would ensure judicial supervision of the referendum, despite calls for a boycott by some of their colleagues including the influential Judges Club that represents judges nationwide.
On Tuesday, the head of the Judges Club, Ahmed al-Zind, stuck by his group’s decision to boycott the vote and said judges who supervise the referendum “would never be forgiven”.
Pictures: Nasser Nasser/AP/Press Association Images