Thousands of Egyptians massed in Cairo Tuesday for a march to the presidential palace to protest the assumption by the nation's Islamist president of nearly unrestricted powers and a draft constitution hurriedly adopted by his allies.
The march comes amid rising anger over the draft charter and decrees issued by Mohammed Morsi giving himself sweeping powers. Morsi called for a nationwide referendum on the draft constitution on Dec. 15.
It is Egypt's worst political crisis since the ouster nearly two years ago of authoritarian president Hosni Mubarak. The country has been divided into two camps: Morsi and his fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, as well as ultraconservative Salafi Islamists versus youth groups, liberal parties and large sectors of the public.
Hundreds of black-clad riot police deployed around the Itihadiya palace in Cairo's district of Heliopolis. Barbed wire was also placed outside the complex, and side roads leading to it were blocked to traffic. Protesters gathered at Cairo's Tahrir square and several other points not far from the palace to march to the presidential complex.
"Freedom or we die," chanted a crowd of several hundred outside a mosque in the Abbasiyah district. "Mohammed Morsi! Illegitimate! Brotherhood! Illegitimate!" they also yelled, alluding to the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood from which Morsi hails.
"This is the last warning before we lay siege on the presidential palace," said Mahmoud Hashim, a 21-year-old student from the city of Suez on the Red Sea. "We want the presidential decrees cancelled."
Several hundred protesters also gathered outside Morsi's residence in an upscale suburb not far from the Itihadiya. "Down with the sons of dogs. We are the power and we are the people" They chanted.
Morsi, who narrowly won the presidency in a June election, appeared to be in no mood for compromise.
A statement by his office said the Egyptian leader met on Tuesday with his deputy, prime minister and several top Cabinet members to discuss preparations for the referendum. The statement appeared also to suggest that it is business as usual at the presidential palace despite the planned rally.
A large turnout would signal sustained momentum for the opposition, which brought out at least 200,000 protesters to Cairo's Tahrir Square a week ago and a comparable number on Friday, demanding that Morsi's decrees be rescinded. Hundreds of protesters also have camped out in Tahrir, birthplace of last year's uprising, for close to two weeks.