(Origiinally published by The Times)
By Martin Fletcher and Evan Hill in Cairo
The Egyptian President denied harbouring dictatorial ambitions yesterday as tens of thousands took to the streets to denounce his apparent power grab on Thursday.
The country remained on the road to “freedom and democracy”, Mohammed Morsi told supporters outside the presidential palace in Cairo as the rift between his country’s Islamist and secular constituencies deepened.
The steps he had taken were necessary, he said, to prevent Mubarak-era judges and other officials — “weevils eating away at the nation of Egypt” — from thwarting last year’s revolution.
The previous day Mr Morsi, a senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood, issued a decree granting himself new powers with no judicial oversight and forestalling any attempt by courts to dissolve the Islamist-dominated panel drafting Egypt’s new constitution.
Liberal, secular and Christian activists labelled Mr Morsi a “new pharaoh” and accused him of mounting a coup to turn Egypt into an Islamic state. Thousands of protesters flooded into Tahrir Square, the hub of last year’s revolution, after Friday prayers. “The people want to bring down the regime,” they chanted, echoing the slogan they used against President Mubarak before he was deposed. “Morsi is Mubarak.” Riot police fired tear gas and 11 demonstrators were injured, but thousands remained in the square late into the night.
Elsewhere, protesters attacked the offices of Mr Morsi’s Freedom and Justice Party, a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, in Alexandria, Port Said, Suez and Ismailiya. At least 15 people were injured in a fight between supporters and opponents of the President outside a mosque in Alexandria. In the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, hundreds marched through the streets.
The office of the UN Human Rights Commissioner said that it was “very concerned about the possible huge ramifications of [Mr Morsi’s] declaration on human rights and the rule of law in Egypt”. But otherwise there was a muted international response to the pronouncement of a man given widespread praise earlier in the week for brokering the Gaza ceasefire.
A US State Department spokesman said that Mr Morsi’s announcement had “raised concerns”. The European Union urged Mr Morsi to respect the democratic process. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office said that it was monitoring developments closely.
Mr Morsi tried to reassure his opponents. He represented all Egyptians, he insisted. “I was one of those people in this country who suffered from what you suffered,” he said, referring to the 30 years of Mubarak’s rule. “I came from free elections and I’m not worried about the existence of an opposition.”
Gehad el-Haddad, a top adviser in Mr Morsi’s party, said that the President’s declarations were legal under the transitional constitution. Powerful members of the judiciary, prominent politicians and some military leaders had been sabotaging Egypt’s transition to democracy and this was the only way to finish the constitution and move on to new elections.
“Those holding up these changes are, most of them, from the inner circle of the Mubarak regime,” he said.
But Mr Morsi failed to satisfy Cairenes disillusioned by six months of power politics. One of his own aides, Samer Marqous, a Coptic Christian, resigned in protest at the President’s “undemocratic” decree. Ibrahim Eissa, the chief editor of the daily al-Tahrir newspaper, called it “the end of the January revolution to serve the interest of the Muslim Brotherhood dictatorship . . . The revolution is over and the new dictator has killed her.”