Egypt’s President Mohammed Mursi faced nationwide protests on Tuesday after digging in his heels over a controversial decree granting him sweeping powers, in the most divisive crisis since he took power in June.
Thousands of lawyers left their syndicate chanting, “The people want the downfall of the regime,” – the signature chant of the protests that toppled Hosni Mubarak last year – as they made their way to Cairo’s iconic Tahrir Square.
Several other marches were preparing to set off from around the capital to join thousands of protesters already in the square to denounce Mursi’s decree.
In the Mediterranean city of Alexandria, several hundred gathered in Qaitbay Square, with two large marches expected to join them later.
“Down with the rule of the Supreme Guide,” they chanted, in reference to the head of the powerful Muslim Brotherhood, on whose ticket Mursi ran for office.
A rival rally in Cairo by the Muslim Brotherhood in support of the president was called off to “avoid potential unrest” but that has done little to abate the division among supporters and foes of Mursi.
“The Muslim Brotherhood stole the revolution” read one banner in Tahrir. Another said the president was “pushing the people to civil disobedience”.
“The Muslim Brotherhood are liars, read another.
Sporadic clashes between police and protesting youths continued into the afternoon near Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
“We will stay in Tahrir until Mursi cancels his declaration,” protester Ahmed Fahmy, 34, told reporters.
The planned demonstrations come a day after Mursi met with the country’s top judges in a bid to defuse the crisis over the decree, that has sparked deadly clashes and prompted judges and journalists to call for strike.
The protesters are angry at the decree that Mursi announced last Thursday allowing him to “issue any decision or law that is final and not subject to appeal”, which effectively placed him beyond judicial oversight.
The decree put him on a collision course with the judiciary and consolidated the long-divided opposition, which accuses him of taking on dictatorial powers and raise fears that the Islamists will be further ensconced in power.
After a meeting on Monday with top judges aimed at defusing the dispute, Mursi stuck by his controversial decree.
There is “no change to the constitutional declaration,” presidential spokesman Yasser Ali told reporters at the end of the meeting.
But he added that Mursi sought to clarify that any irrevocable decisions apply only to issues related “to his sovereign powers” and stressed the temporary nature of the decree.
In a statement, the head of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) – the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood – said the meeting between Mursi and the judges had been “fruitful”.
But judges at the meeting said the crisis was not over.
“The meeting failed,” Judge Abdel Rahman Bahlul, who attended the talks, told the independent daily Al-Masry Al-Youm.
“We cannot say this is the end of the crisis between the judiciary and the presidency,” another judge who attended the talks, Judge Ahmed Abdel Rahman, told the paper.
A judicial source told reporters that even if immunity were limited to sovereign powers, “which appears to be a compromise, there are still concerns that the text itself remains unchanged.”
Mursi’s decree has led to charges that he is taking on dictatorial powers.
Some courts have suspended work in protest, and journalists have decided in principle to strike.
On Monday, hundreds of mourners turned out for the burial of a member of the president’s party who was killed in violence outside its offices in the Nile Delta town of Damanhour a day earlier.
Angry demonstrators have also torched offices belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP).