CAIRO: More than 10,000 protesters opposing Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi swarmed the square in front of his Cairo palace on Friday evening, breaking through barbed wire barriers protecting the compound.
A cordon of soldiers prevented the crowd from nearing the palace’s main gate, but elsewhere protesters sprayed graffiti on the outside walls, telling Morsi to “Go” and leave power, AFP correspondents at the scene said.
There was no visible violence, but tensions were high after clashes at the same spot on Wednesday between pro- and anti-Morsi supporters left seven people dead and more than 600 injured.
Several army tanks were stationed in the square and nearby but made no movement against the protesters, some of whom clambered atop them to declare the army was “hand in hand” with them.
That was reminiscent of the popular uprising that ousted long-time president Hosni Mubarak early last year, when tanks stood idle amid massive protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, as protesters mixed with soldiers.
The crowd also shouted “We want to see the fall of the regime”, a slogan common during the anti-Mubarak revolt.
The increasingly strident calls for Morsi to step down followed an address on Thursday in which the president dismissed demands he give up sweeping new powers he decreed for himself two weeks ago and postpone a December 15 referendum on a constitution drafted by a panel of Islamic oriented allies.
Leaders of the main opposition group, the National Salvation Front, rebuffed a grudging offer from Morsi to talk with them about the political crisis his decisions have triggered.
Both Morsi’s Islamic backers and the largely secular opposition have dug in their heels in the confrontation, raising the prospect of further escalation.
In his speech, Morsi sought to portray elements of the opposition as “thugs” allied to remnants of Mubarak’s regime.
The Front shot back, accusing the president of “dividing Egyptians between his ‘supporters of legitimacy’… and his opponents.”
The opposition sees the decree as a brazen power grab, and the draft constitution as an attempt to quash Egypt’s secular underpinnings in favour of Islamic aspirations.
Demonstrators taking to Cairo’s streets said they were determined to stop Morsi.
But determination flashed just as brightly among those backing Morsi.
Late Friday, police fired tear gas at hundreds of Islamic protesters, mostly hardline Salafists, who tried to storming the Cairo studios of private Egyptian television channels critical of Morsi’s supporters.
Prominent Salafist leader Hazim Abu Ismail had called for the demonstrations on his Twitter and Facebook accounts in order to “cleanse the media” of reporting they see as biased against the Islamists’ cause.
Many Egyptian media say the Muslim Brotherhood was seeking to suppress freedom of expression through the new draft constitution.
At a Cairo funeral on Friday for several of the seven killed this week and said to be Muslim Brotherhood members, pro-Morsi supporters dismissed the public protests against the president.
“All the people are with us, with the (draft) constitution,” said one Brotherhood supporter attending the service in the Al-Azhar mosque.
That unquestioning backing was not shared by Egypt’s top Islamic body, which on Thursday called on Morsi to suspend the decree.
The demonstrations seen this week were the biggest since Morsi took office in June with a slim election victory.
The United States and European Union have called for dialogue to resolve the crisis.
US President Barack Obama expressed “deep concern” in a call to Morsi on Thursday, the White House said.
And on Friday, UN human rights chief Navi Pillay criticised the draft constitution and “the way the process has been short-circuited,” saying “people are right to be very concerned.”
She highlighted the proposed charter’s perceived weaknesses in upholding human rights and gender equality, the primacy of Islamic sharia law in the text and its potential to give the president “excessive power” over the judiciary.