Morsi’s palace under siege as protesters defy teargas and storm barricades

(Originally published by The Times)

By Evan Hill in Cairo

Thousands of Egyptian demonstrators laid siege to President Morsi’s palace in Cairo yesterday as protests against his attempt to ram through a new constitution escalated.

Large crowds pushed through police barricades after coming under teargas fire from security forces. A video posted online by the Egyptian news network Rassd showed a convoy leaving the palace through a riot police cordon as protesters chanted “coward” and “leave”. Officials later insisted that Mr Morsi had not fled from the compound but left for a prior engagement.

Although yesterday’s demonstrations were smaller than the mass protests a week ago, public dissatisfaction with the way the President’s Muslim Brotherhood has monopolised the legislative process shows no sign of abating.

Mr Morsi has called for a referendum on December 15 on the draft constitution, which was finished on Saturday morning after a marathon all-night session marred by walkouts. Tens of thousands of Morsi supporters rallied outside Cairo University hours after the draft was finalised, in what the Brotherhood called a “million-man march”.

But in Tahrir Square and in front of the presidential palace last night, crowds chanted and waved signs denouncing the constitution, the Brotherhood and the Islamist movement’s top official, the Supreme Guide. “The rule of the Guide? Void! The referendum? Void!” they shouted.

A dozen independent newspapers and five television stations expressed support for the opposition yesterday, many by going on strike or printing front pages that attacked Mr Morsi’s “dictatorial” decisions.

Mohamed Arafat, the director of field operations for the opposition Social Democratic Party, said that his party had already begun organising a campaign to vote the draft down, but he was not optimistic. “If we had a month before the constitutional referendum, I think a majority would say no,” he said.

Mr Morsi made himself and the assembly drafting the constitution immune from judicial oversight through a set of presidential decrees on November 22. His Administration said that the measures were needed to prevent the corrupt court system from dissolving the assembly and annulling his June election victory.

Ahmed Abdul Tawab, a 28-year-old accountant in Tahrir Square, said that he had voted for Mr Morsi but was now beginning to regret it. “I’m not against the Brotherhood,” he said. “I came here tonight to discuss the problems of the constitution with people and decide whether to vote yes or no.”

Randa Mohamed, a 34-year-old secretary, said that she feared that the Brotherhood would be able persuade the majority of Egyptians by turning the debate into a question of religion. “The Brotherhood will say a ‘yes’ vote is yes for Islam and a ‘no’ vote is non-Muslim,” she said.

Courts throughout the country, including the Supreme Constitutional Court, have gone on strike to protest against Mr Morsi’s decrees, and the Judges Club, the judiciary’s primary lobbying body, announced that its members would not oversee the referendum, as required by law.