Cairo: In what is billed as the “Last Warning”, tens of thousands of Egyptians irked over President Mohammed Mursi’s power grab and the rushed constitutional draft, staged protests outside the presidential palace in Cairo on Tuesday.
Protesters tried breaching the barbed wire barricade around the palace as Egyptian police fired tear gas on them.
At least 18 were injured in a moderately violet protest that saw thousands chanting the same slogans that reverberated in Tahrir Square during Mubarak’s ouster revolution.
The controversy over Mursi’s Nov 22 declaration granting him unrestricted powers has done well to unify his hitherto scattered opponents.
Mursi’s decrees place him above oversight of any kind, including by the courts, and provide immunity to the panel drafting the constitution and parliament`s upper chamber.
The decrees have led to charges that Mursi`s powers turned him into a "new pharaoh."
The large turnout in Tuesday`s protests — dubbed "The Last Warning" by organizers — 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 to demand that Mursi rescind the decrees.
The huge scale of the protests have dealt a blow to the legitimacy of the new constitution, which Mursi`s opponents contend allows religious authorities too much influence over legislation, threatens to restrict freedom of expression and opens the door to Islamist control over day-to-day life.
The country`s powerful judges have said they will not take on their customary role of overseeing the vote, thus robbing it of much of its legitimacy.
Mursi was in the presidential palace conducting business as usual as the protesters gathered outside. He left for home through a back door as the crowds continued to swell, according to a presidential official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
The official said Mursi left on the advice of security officials to head off "possible dangers" and to calm the protesters. Mursi`s spokesman, however, said the president left the palace at the end of his normal work day, through the door he routinely uses.
The protest was peaceful except for a brief outburst when police used tear gas to prevent demonstrators from removing a barricade topped with barbed wire and converging on the palace.
Soon after, with the president gone, the police abandoned their lines and the protesters surged ahead to reach the palace walls. But there were no attempts to storm the palace, guarded inside by the army`s Republican Guard.
A giant poster emblazoned with an image of Mursi wearing a Pharaonic crown was hoisted between two street light posts outside the presidential palace. "Down with the president. No to the constitution," it declared.
The massive gathering was reminiscent of the one outside the palace on Feb. 11, 2011 — the day authoritarian president Hosni Mubarak stepped down in the face of an 18-day uprising that ended his 29-year regime.
Shouts of "Erhal! Erhal!" — Arabic for "Leave! Leave!" — and "The people want to topple the regime!" rose up from the crowd, the same chants used against Mubarak. This time, though, they were directed at his successor, Egypt`s first democratically elected president.
Tens of thousands also gathered in Cairo`s downtown Tahrir Square, miles away from the palace, to join several hundred who have been camping out there for nearly two weeks. There were other large protests around the city.
Smaller protests by Mursi opponents were staged in the Islamist stronghold of Assiut, as well as in Suez, Luxor, Aswan, Damanhour and the industrial city of Mahallah, north of Cairo.
Earlier Tuesday, several hundred protesters also gathered outside Mursi`s residence in an upscale suburb. "Down with the sons of dogs. We are the power and we are the people," they chanted.
Mursi, who narrowly won the presidency in a June election, appeared to be in no mood for compromise.
A statement by his office said he met Tuesday with his deputy, his prime minister and several top Cabinet members to discuss preparations for the referendum. The statement suggested business as usual at the palace, despite the mass rally outside its doors.
Asked why Mursi did not address the crowds, Muslim Brotherhood spokesman Mahmoud Ghozlan said the protesters were "rude" and included "thugs and drug addicts."
The Islamists responded to the mass opposition protests last week by sending hundreds of thousands of supporters into Cairo`s twin city of Giza on Saturday and across much of the country. Thousands also besieged Egypt`s highest court, the Supreme Constitutional Court.
The court had been widely expected to declare the constitutional assembly that passed the draft charter illegitimate and to disband parliament`s upper house, the Shura Council. Instead, the judges went on strike after they found their building under siege by protesters.
Mursi`s Nov. 22 decrees were followed last week by the constitutional panel rushing through the draft constitution in a marathon, all-night session without the participation of liberal and Christian members. Only four women, all Islamists, attended the session.
With Agency Inputs