Tens of thousands of Egyptians tore through cordons of barbed wire and riot police and surged against the gates of the Presidential Palace on Tuesday, as anger mounted over what they called a power grab by the country’s Islamist president.
Thousands of riot police who formed cordons around the palace earlier in the day tried to fight off the crowds with truncheons and blankets of tear gas. But they beat a retreat behind the palace’s formidable walls as the protests swelled into the tens of thousands. If protestors breach the walls and storm the presidential palace, it would mark a dramatic escalation in a political standoff between President Mohammed Morsi and his Islamist allies and Egypt’s non-Islamist opposition ranks.
On Nov. 22, President Mohammed Morsi signed a decree that granted himself nearly unrestricted powers, kicking off some of the biggest anti-government demonstrations since the final days of ousted President Hosni Mubarak‘s rule. Even in the past uprising, however, protesters didn’t breach the walls of the Presidential Palace. As crowds threatened to do so on Tuesday, President Morsi left the palace to his home in a remote Cairo suburb, according to numerous local media reports.
The decree united Egypt’s fractured opposition ranks more so than at any point since Mr. Mubarak’s fall, sharpening long-simmering tensions between the country’s Islamist political forces and nearly everyone else, including liberals, seculars, leftists and nostalgists for the old regime.
In Cairo’s central Tahrir Square, and in Alexandria, tens of thousands of protestors similarly took to the streets Tuesday night to denounce the president’s move.
Outside the palace walls in Cairo, protestors chanted many of the same slogans that echoed throughout Egypt during last year’s uprising against Mr. Mubarak. Others keeled over in the streets, choking on tear gas, gasping for air and or vomiting into the gutter. Some protesters danced on top of an armored personnel carrier seized from riot police, spraypainting anti-government slogans on it.
Mr. Morsi’s decree—which placed nearly all state powers in his hands and placed the president above the judicial branch—was one of the most sweeping expansions of executive powers in the modern Egyptian state. Coming just six months after Mr. Morsi, a former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, narrowly won the country’s first democratic presidential election, the decree appeared to confirm many Egyptians’ worst fears about the Muslim Brotherhood’s aims.
“We woke up one day and found a very radical Islamic situation,” said Walid Ahmed, a 37-year-old engineer by the Presidential Palace. “They are penetrating everything. The president is pushing us toward civil war.”
Another protester, Yussuf Ahmed, 25, said they had no choice but to take their anger to the walls of the palace after days of protest in Cairo’s Tahrir Square went unheeded. “We’ve been in Tahrir for 11 days and it hasn’t done much, so we needed to escalate.”
Mr. Morsi said the decrees were temporary, just until a new constitution was drafted and approved in a popular referendum, which is currently slated for Dec. 15. He said they were necessary to prevent judges still loyal to the old regime from derailing the country’s democratic transition, such as by disbanding the assembly charged with drafting the new constitution.
The constitution-drafting process was already fraught with tension. Nearly all the non-Islamist members on the drafting committee—including Christians, seculars and liberals—resigned in protests against the Islamists’ monopoly on the process last month. The assembly pressed on, however, and completed drafting the document in a hurry after Mr. Morsi’s decree.
At least eight influential daily newspapers, a mix of opposition party mouthpieces and independent publications, suspended publication for a day Tuesday 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 said they planned to suspend broadcasts for the day on Wednesday.