By Nancy A. Youssef and Amina Ismail, McClatchy Newspapers –
CAIRO — Protesters Tuesday night stormed onto the grounds of the Egyptian presidential palace in a dramatic escalation of the crisis over Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi’s decision to give himself absolute judicial power and set a referendum on a controversial new constitution.
Police made what appeared to be half-hearted efforts to confront the protesters, who commandeered a police vehicle as they approached the palace and painted graffiti on the palace walls. But the inability, or the unwillingness, of police to keep Morsi opponents at bay raised questions about whether the nation’s last remaining arbiter, the Egyptian military, would intervene in the dispute, and if so, on whose side.
Either way, it appeared increasingly difficult for Morsi to ignore opponents who charge that the president, who was a top leader of the Muslim Brotherhood until his election in June, is grabbing power and empowering the Brotherhood.
Opponents have said they want a president who is more representative of the nation’s electorate and have demanded that Morsi rescind his declaration of immunity from judicial oversight. They also want him to cancel the constitutional referendum, set for Dec. 15, until a more representative constitutional assembly can produce a document. The current assembly was dominated by the Brotherhood after secular and Christian members withdrew.
In a televised interview late last week, Morsi said the proposed constitution would bring stability. But Tuesday’s protesters said that by pushing a document written by the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated constitutional assembly and rushing a referendum over the objections of some judges, Egypt was entering a period of persistent instability.
The protest at the palace was one of two that opponents had scheduled Tuesday. The other was held in Tahrir Square, site of the 18-day sit-in that led to the toppling of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak early last year. At both protests, the crowds chanted “Leave!” and “Down, down with Morsi Mubarak,” a reference to the toppled dictator.
While protests at Tahrir were relatively subdued, the crowds at the palace began taking down the barbed wire strung Tuesday morning on the road leading to the palace. Police standing behind the wire fired a few rounds of tear gas in an effort to discourage the crowd, but before long could be seen joking with the protesters. At times, it appeared some officers had joined in.
“We cannot stop the will of the people,” one officer told a reporter from McClatchy Newspapers — a line eerily similar to what some police said during the anti-Mubarak protests nearly two years ago.
Along with police shields, belts and other equipment, protesters nabbed a police truck and began driving it through the crowds. The Reuters news agency, citing unnamed sources, reported that as the truck made its way toward the palace, Morsi left the premises, although it is not clear why or where he was headed.
By 8 p.m. local time, the protesters appeared to have left the palace compound, but remained outside the fence that surrounds the palace and its grounds.
Until the palace protest, it had appeared that the crisis was easing and that Morsi had the upper hand. Judges who had gone on strike had announced they would return to work to oversee the referendum, a critical question that had bedeviled plans for the vote on the constitution.
Even at the palace, protesters conceded that they were far less organized than the Brotherhood, which had honed its political rallying skills over 84 years, during much of which time the group was illegal.
“Things are escalating to the point we want him to leave. We reject his legitimacy,” said Sandy Rashad, 45, who works in public relations. “I think things will escalate to civil disobedience. It worries everyone. This will go on for some time.”