At least 100,000 Egyptians forced Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi out of the presidential palace on Tuesday to protest his assumption of nearly unrestricted powers and a draft constitution hurriedly adopted by his allies.
Police fired tear gas at protesters who attempted to get past the barbed wire-topped barricade cordoning off the palace in Cairo’s Heliopolis neighborhood, but the protesters broke through nonetheless. With the barricade crossed, protesters moved closer to the palace’s walls, and the police apparently chose not to try and push the crowds back.
The brief outburst of violence left 18 people injured, none seriously, according to the official MENA news agency.
Demonstrators clanged incessantly on lampposts, waved Egyptian flags and held aloft images of Morsi clad in a turban and Nazi uniform with the word “void” written in Arabic underneath.
Shortly after the clashes began, Morsi reportedly left the presidential palace. The president left the building through a back door when the crowds “grew bigger,” according to a presidential official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
The boulevard near the presidential palace where protesters amassed was inundated by a seething horde of Cairenes, with numbers estimated at over 100,000 on Al Nadi, a broad avenue outside the palace, and thousands more on nearby streets. Thousands more congregated in the city’s main Tahrir Square.
Protesters also commandeered two police vans, climbing atop the armored vehicles to jubilantly wave Egypt’s red, white and black flag and chant against Morsi. Nearly two hours into the demonstration, protesters were mingling freely with the black-clad riot police, with many waving the flag and chanting against Morsi.
Many in the crowd were chanting “erhal, erhal,” Arabic for “leave, leave” and “the people want to topple the regime” — two well-known chants from the 2010-2011 Arab Spring revolts that toppled former president Hosni Mubarak and other Middle Eastern and North African rulers.
One commentator, Nasser Amin of the Arab Independent Judiciary Center, told Egypt’s ONTV that the demands were escalating every hour, and that Egyptians may soon ask to put Morsi on trial as they did Mubarak.
Associated Press reporter Sarah El Deeb, who was embedded outside the presidential palace, reported that the demonstrators chanted “we don’t want military rulers, or brotherhood to rule in name of religion.”
The march came amid rising anger over the draft charter and decrees issued by Morsi giving himself sweeping powers. Morsi called for a nationwide referendum on the draft constitution on December 15.
In the coastal city of Alexandria, some 10,000 opponents of Morsi gathered in the center of the country’s second-largest metropolis. They chanted slogans against the Egyptian leader and his Muslim Brotherhood party.
It is Egypt’s worst political crisis since the ouster nearly two years ago of authoritarian president Mubarak. The country has been divided into two camps: Morsi and his fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, as well as ultraconservative Salafi Islamists, versus youth groups, liberal parties and large sectors of the public.
“Freedom or we die,” chanted a crowd of several hundred outside a mosque in the Abbasiyah district. “Mohammed Morsi! Illegitimate! Brotherhood! Illegitimate!” they also yelled.
“This is the last warning before we lay siege to the presidential palace,” said Mahmoud Hashim, a 21-year-old student from the city of Suez on the Red Sea. “We want the presidential decrees canceled.”
Several hundred protesters also gathered outside Morsi’s residence in an upscale suburb not far from the Itihadiya. “Down with the sons of dogs. We are the power and we are the people,” they chanted.
Morsi, who narrowly won the presidency in a June election, appeared to be in no mood for compromise.
A statement by his office said the Egyptian leader met on Tuesday with his deputy, prime minister and several top cabinet members to discuss preparations for the referendum. The statement appeared also to suggest that it was business as usual at the presidential palace despite the rally.
The large turnout signaled sustained momentum for the opposition, which brought out at least 200,000 protesters to Cairo’s Tahrir Square a week ago and a comparable number on Friday, demanding that Morsi’s decrees be rescinded. Hundreds of protesters also have camped out in Tahrir, birthplace of last year’s uprising, for close to two weeks.
The Islamists responded by sending hundreds of thousands of supporters into Cairo’s twin city of Giza on Saturday and across much of the country. Thousands also imposed a siege on Egypt’s highest court, the Supreme Constitutional Court.
The opposition has yet to say whether it intends to focus its energy on rallying support for a boycott of the December 15 vote or defeating the draft with a “no” vote.
“We haven’t made any decisions yet, but I’m leaning against a boycott and toward voting ‘no,’” said Hossam al-Hamalawy of the Socialist Revolutionaries, a key group behind last year’s uprising. “We want a [new] constituent assembly that represents the people and we keep up the pressure on Morsi.”
The strikes were part of a planned campaign of civil disobedience that could bring in other industries.
On Tuesday, at least eight influential dailies, a mix of opposition party mouthpieces and independent publications, suspended publication for a day to protest against what many journalists see as the restrictions on freedom of expression in the draft constitution.
The country’s privately owned TV networks planned their own protest Wednesday, when they will blacken their screens all day.
Morsi’s November 22 decrees placed him above oversight of any kind, including the courts. The constitutional panel then rushed through a draft constitution without the participation of representatives of liberals and Christians. Only four women, all Islamists, attended the marathon, all-night session.
The charter has been criticized for not protecting the rights of women and minority groups, and many journalists see it as restricting freedom of expression. Critics also say it empowers Islamic religious clerics by giving them a say over legislation, while some articles were seen as tailored to get rid of Islamists’ enemies.