CAIRO – The same chants used against Hosni Mubarak were turned against his successor Tuesday as more than 200,000 people packed Egypt’s Tahrir Square in the biggest challenge yet to Islamist President Mohammed Morsi.
The massive, flag-waving throng protesting Morsi’s assertion of near-absolute powers rivaled some of the largest crowds that helped drive Mubarak from office last year.
“The people want to bring down the regime!” and “erhal, erhal” – Arabic for “leave, leave” – rang out across the plaza, this time directed at Egypt’s first freely elected president.
The protests were sparked by edicts Morsi issued last week that effectively neutralize the judiciary, the last branch of government he does not control.
But they turned into a broader outpouring of anger against Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood, which opponents say have used election victories to monopolize power, squeeze out rivals and dictate a new, Islamist constitution, while doing little to solve Egypt’s mounting economic and security woes.
Clashes broke out in several cities, with Morsi’s opponents attacking Brotherhood offices, setting fire to at least one. Protesters and Brotherhood members pelted each other with stones and firebombs in the Nile Delta city of Mahalla el-Kobra.
Gehad el-Haddad, a senior adviser to the Brotherhood and its political party, said Morsi would not back down on his edicts.
That sets the stage for a drawn-out battle that could throw the nation into greater turmoil. Protest organizers have called for another mass rally Friday. If the Brotherhood responds with demonstrations of its own, as some of its leaders have hinted, it would raise the prospect of greater violence after a series of clashes between the two camps in recent days.
Another flashpoint could come Sunday, when the constitutional court is to rule on whether to dissolve the assembly writing the new constitution, which is dominated by the Brotherhood and its Islamist allies. Morsi’s edicts ban the courts from disbanding the panel; if the court defies him and rules anyway, it would be a direct challenge that could spill over into the streets.