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The Globe and Mail

Tahrir Square fills with calls for change in echo of revolution

Protesters demonstrate in Cairo's Tahrir Square, Nov. 27, 2012. Demonstrators began flowing into the streets of Cairo Tuesday for a day of protest against President Mohammed Morsi's effort to assert broad new powers, dismissing his efforts only hours before to reaffirm his deference to Egyptian law and courts.

Ivor Prickett/The New York Times

Hundreds of thousands of protesters called for the ouster of Egypt's first freely elected President on Tuesday, descending on Cairo's Tahrir Square in a scene reminiscent of the height of last year's Egyptian revolution.

Chanting many of the same refrains they did in 2011, such as, "The people demand the downfall of the regime," roughly 200,000 activists and citizens from across the spectrum of Egyptian society took to the square. The gathering reflected the increasing polarization of the country's politics between supporters of President Mohammed Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood and almost every opposition group in Egypt.

Many demonstrators also appeared to shift the focus of their anger to Mr. Morsi himself, rather than the series of controversial decrees issued by the President last week.

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The orders render Mr. Morsi's decisions immune to court challenges until the country's new constitution is drafted, and grant the same immunity from court oversight to the Islamist-dominated body drafting the constitution.

Mr. Morsi and his supporters describe the move as temporary but necessary. They say they want to protect the goals of the Egyptian revolution and ensure the constitution-crafting process isn't sidelined by loyalists of the previous Egyptian regime.

Opponents see it as a power grab that gives Mr. Morsi arguably more control than his authoritarian predecessor, Hosni Mubarak.

With the constitution of the Arab world's most populous nation – and a crucial U.S. ally – at stake, many of Mr. Morsi's detractors fear that the Islamist President could set the country off the course of democracy, undoing Egypt's 22-month-old revolution.

Mr. Morsi's meeting with some of the country's top judges on Monday appeared to lay the groundwork for some form of compromise over the decrees. But there is still much confusion over what Mr. Morsi actually promised the judiciary.

The central issue of discussion between the President and judges is Mr. Morsi's apparent promise to use his unchecked powers only in matters of "sovereignty." Some have taken that to mean only matters related directly to the drafting of the constitution, but the precise definition remains unclear.

While Tahrir Square itself remained packed but peaceful on Tuesday, sporadic violence broke out in some of the side streets connecting to the square. Protesters near Mohammed Mahmoud Street – the site of a demonstration that predates Mr. Morsi's decrees by four days – threw rocks at security forces, who responded with tear-gas canisters. Outside Cairo, the violence in some regions was more acute. According to the Muslim Brotherhood, some of the organization's offices were torched by anti-Morsi demonstrators. In Mahalla, a Nile Delta city, supporters and opponents of the President engaged in skirmishes that left dozens injured.

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The confrontations showed little sign of dissipating any time soon, as both the Muslim Brotherhood and its opponents have more demonstrations planned for later this week. Many worried that Tuesday's violence would be far worse, but Brotherhood officials decided to cancel a rival rally that might have ended in a confrontation with the Tahrir demonstrations.

As street protests over the decrees enter their sixth day, Mr. Morsi appears caught in a bind. By refusing to back down, he risks further galvanizing his opponents and sparking more protests. But if he does concede, he could come across as politically weak and lose support among his Islamist base.

During Tuesday's protest in Tahrir, members of myriad political parties could be seen organizing marches and waving placards, as the chants ringing out through the square shifted from cries against the decrees to calls for Mr. Morsi himself to step down.

The Muslim Brotherhood showed few signs of backing down, instead painting the demonstrators who showed up in Tahrir as supporters of Mr. Mubarak, looking to derail the country's revolution.

Quoting Mr. Morsi's spokesman, the Brotherhood's official Twitter account posted a note saying there would be "no turning back, decree is staying, those not willing to reach to a point of stability will be held accountable to God & history."

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