Anti-Morsi dissent grows as protesters pack Tahrir Square
Tens of thousands of Egyptians protested against President Mohamed Morsi on Friday after an Islamist-led assembly raced through the approval of a new constitution in a bid to end a crisis over the leader’s newly expanded powers.
Giant crowds of protesters packed Cairo’s Tahrir Square and marched in other cities on Friday vowing to stop a draft constitution that Islamist allies of President Mohamed Morsi approved hours earlier in a rushed, all-night session without the participation of liberals and Christians.
Crowds of protesters marched from several locations in Cairo, converging in central Tahrir Square for the opposition’s second mass rally in a week against Morsi. “Constitution: Void!” they chanted, and “The people want to bring down the regime,” as fireworks went off.
The crowd appeared comparable in size to the more than 200,000 anti-Morsi protesters who filled Tahrir on Tuesday. Tens of thousands also took to the streets of Alexandria and other cities.
Speaking from the iconic spot, FRANCE 24’s Alex Turnbull said that there were “representatives of all the opposition parties in the square,” showing cohesion in the campaign against Morsi. Leading the campaign, liberal Mohammed ElBaradei, who addressed the growing crowds this afternoon, saying the new constitution must be voided.
“We are determined to continue with all peaceful means, whatever it takes to defend our legitimate rights,” he said. His ally, senior opposition leader Hamdeen Sabbahi, vowed protests would go on until “we topple the constitution”.
“The revolution is back ... We shall be victorious,” said Sabbahi, a liberal politician who came in a surprisingly close third in last summer’s presidential election. “We are united against the oppressive regime.”
Anger at Morsi even spilled over into a mosque on Friday where the Islamist president joined weekly prayers. The mosque’s preacher was interrupted by outraged congregants when he compared Morsi with the Prophet Mohammad, saying the prophet had enjoyed vast powers as leader, giving a precedent for the same to happen now. “No to tyranny!” the worshippers chanted in response. Morsi was forced to take to the podium, saying that he too objected to the language of the sheik and that one-man rule contradicts Islam.
Two-week race for public vote
The mass protests were sparked by the president’s decrees a week ago granting himself sweeping powers and neutralising the judiciary, the last check on his authority. The move tapped into a feeling among many Egyptians that Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, from which he hails, are using their election victories to monopolise power and set up a new one-party state, nearly two years after the fall of autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
But the sudden adoption of a draft constitution by the Islamist-dominated assembly tasked with producing the document throws the confrontation into a new phase.
The opposition is counting on a revolt by the judiciary, which is largely hostile to Morsi’s edicts. The Supreme Constitutional Court is to rule on Sunday whether to dissolve the constitutional assembly. If it does so, the effect on the draft already adopted by the assembly is unclear. In part it may be a question of whose legitimacy is stronger and whose public support is larger.
If the charter comes to a referendum, the opposition is faced with the choice of boycotting in protest or trying to rally the public to vote to reject the draft.
The nationwide referendum would likely be held in mid-December, giving both the opposition and the Muslim Brotherhood two weeks to garner support from the public.
“The opposition is getting ready for two very complicated weeks and they know they have a very powerful Muslim Brotherhood facing them,” FRANCE 24’s Turnbull said from Cairo, adding that extra time could benefit the ruling Islamists.
“We’re looking at weeks of intense campaigning and the Muslim Brotherhood knows exactly how to do that – they’ve been working on the ground for nearly 50 years now. We’re going to see them canvassing the whole country trying to convince people to vote for this constitution.”
In any scenario, Egypt’s most polarising and volatile crisis since Mubarak’s ouster is likely to deepen. The past week, clashes between Morsi’s supporters and opponents left two dead and hundreds wounded and raised fears of further chaos.
But on Friday, organisers were taking no risks. “There were some clashes nearby as people made their way towards the square,” Turnbull reported. “But security in the square itself is pretty tight. For the first time in a long time activists have designated security officers who are wearing yellow jackets and helmets: some of them standing atop wooden towers to monitor the crowd and others carrying signs reading ‘no entry to sexual harassers’.”
Morsi is expected to announce a date for the referendum on Saturday.
(FRANCE 24 with wires)