Thousands of Egyptians massed in Cairo Tuesday for a march to the presidential palace to protest the assumption by the nation's Islamist president of nearly unrestricted powers and a draft constitution hurriedly adopted by his allies.
The march comes amid rising anger over the draft charter and decrees issued by Mohammed Morsi giving himself sweeping powers. Morsi called for a nationwide referendum on the draft constitution on Dec. 15.
It is Egypt's worst political crisis since the ouster nearly two years ago of authoritarian president Hosni 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.
Hundreds of black-clad riot police deployed around the Itihadiya palace in Cairo's district of Heliopolis. Barbed wire was also placed outside the complex, and side roads leading to it were blocked to traffic. Protesters gathered at Cairo's Tahrir square and several other points not far from the palace to march to the presidential complex.
"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, alluding to the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood from which Morsi hails.
"This is the last warning before we lay siege on 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 cancelled."
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 is business as usual at the presidential palace despite the planned rally.
A large turnout would signal 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protesters to Cairo's Tahrir Square a week ago and a comparable number on Friday, demanding that Morsi's decrees be rescinded.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 court had been widely expected Sunday to declare the constitutional assembly that passed the draft charter on Friday to be 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.
The opposition has yet to say whether it intends to focus its energy on rallying support for a boycott of the Dec. 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.
Already 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 Nov. 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.