Egyptians have taken their protests against Islamist President Mohammed Mursi to the gates of his palace, demanding his ouster in scenes not witnessed even during demonstrations that toppled Hosni Mubarak.
A photographer said hundreds of protesters were camped in front of the Itihadiya presidential palace on Wednesday morning after it had been besieged the previous night by vast anti-Mursi crowds furious at a November 22 decree expanding his powers.
Mursi returned to work in the presidential palace on Wednesday morning, his aide told reporters.
He had left “on schedule” after his meetings on Tuesday and went back to his house in a Cairo suburb, the interior ministry had said on Tuesday.
Before dawn, street vendors began to set up shop along the walls of the palace which had been sprayed with anti-Mursi graffiti.
“The final warning, the presidency under siege”, read the headline of daily al-Shuruk as the independent Al-Watan declared “Revolution at the president’s doorstep”.
During Tuesday’s protest, which drew tens of thousands of demonstrators, a group cut through barbed wire a few hundred metres from the palace, prompting police to fire the tear gas before retreating and allowing demonstrators to reach the palace walls, correspondents said.
Demonstrators banged on lamp posts and chanted “leave” in a thunderous show of force outside the palace not seen before.
On the last days of the revolution that brought down Mubarak, tens of thousands had tried to reach the Itihadiya palace but were prevented from getting close by military police.
Hundreds more Mursi opponents spent Tuesday night in Cairo’s Tahrir Square inside dozens of tents erected almost two weeks ago, as activists used social networking sites to appeal for blankets and food.
The protesters are angry over Mursi’s decree which granted him sweeping powers and enabled him to call a December 15 referendum on a draft constitution boycotted by liberals, leftists and Christians.
As he faces the worst political crisis since he took office in June, Mursi insists the measures are aimed at cutting short a tumultuous transition.
The National Rescue Front, led by high profile dissidents including former UN nuclear watchdog chief Mohamed ElBaradei, ex-Arab League chief Amr Mussa and former presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi, on Wednesday called on Mursi to cancel the decree, state media said.
They also urged the scrapping of the referendum and the formation of a new panel to draft a constitution that better reflects Egyptian society.
The decree has deeply polarised the country, pitting Mursi’s Islamist supporters against the largely secular-leaning opposition.
In the central province of Minya, clashes flared between opponents and supporters of Mursi outside the headquarters of his Freedom and Justice Party, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Police fired tear gas at the crowd after Mursi opponents tore down a picture of the president, prompting skirmishes with his supporters.
Anti-Mursi protests also erupted in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria and the central province of Sohag, with the spreading unrest prompting US appeals for restraint.
“We would simply urge that protesters express their views peacefully and that they be given the environment, if you will, to protest peacefully,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said.
Hundreds of thousands had taken to the streets over the weekend, with rival pro- and anti-Mursi protests staged around the country.
The decision to go to a referendum on December 15 caused further upheaval, including within the judiciary itself.
On Monday, the Supreme Judicial Council said it would ensure judicial supervision of the referendum, despite calls for a boycott by some colleagues, including the influential Judges Club that represents judges nationwide.
On Tuesday, the head of the Judges Club, Ahmed al-Zind, stuck by his group’s decision to boycott the vote and said judges who supervise the referendum “would never be forgiven”.