Supporters and opponents of Egypt’s president have clashed in several cities after he assumed sweeping new powers, a clear show of the deepening polarisation plaguing the country.
In the largest rally on Friday, thousands of chanting protesters packed Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the heart of the 2011 revolution, demanding Mohamed Morsi quit and accusing him of launching a “coup”.
Buoyed by accolades from around the world for mediating a truce between Hamas and Israel, Morsi on Thursday issued a declaration giving himself powers that go beyond those held by toppled president Hosni Mubarak, putting himself above the judiciary.
He also ordered that an Islamist-dominated assembly writing the new constitution could not be dissolved by legal challenges.
Liberal and secular members earlier walked out of the body, charging it would impose strict Islamic practices.
“I am for all Egyptians. I will not be biased against any son of Egypt,” Morsi said on a stage outside the presidential palace on Friday, adding that he was working for social and economic stability and the rotation of power.
Tear gas fired
Thousands of protesters gathered in Tahrir Square after opposition leaders called for a “million-man march” to protest against what they say is a coup by Morsi.
Opponents of President Mohamed Morsi broke into the offices
Al Jazeera Hoda Abdel-Hamid, reporting from Cairo, said that while the crowds had thinned slightly, there were still many people in Tahrir Square, “calling for the fall of the regime – the are calling for the fall of the [Muslim] Brotherhood”.
Protests also turned violent in Alexandria, Port Said and Suez.
Fifteen people were injured in clashes between supporters and opponents of the president.
The headquarters of Morsi’s Freedom and Justice Party headquarters in Alexandria was set on fire by protesters on Friday afternoon.
The party’s offices have been attacked in five cities in total.
‘We are all together’
Hundreds of Morsi’s supporters rallied outside the presidential palace in Cairo on Friday to express support for the him.
In his speech, Morsi said: “I will never be against any Egyptians because we are all together and we need to give momentum to freedom and democracy and the transfer.
“I like to support what you want – to have stability and safety, the safety of the individual and safety of the nation.”
He said he aimed to bring social and economic stability to Egypt. Doing so, he said requires “getting rid of the obstacles of the past”.
“My decision is to keep and to maintain and to preserve the nation and the people,” Morsi said.
“I don’t want to have all the powers…but if I see my nation in danger, I will do and I will act. I must.”
Morsi, an Islamist whose roots are in the Muslim Brotherhood, has also given himself sweeping powers that allowed him to sack the unpopular prosecutor general and opened the door for a retrial for Mubarak and his aides.
The president’s decree aimed to end the logjam and push Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous nation, more quickly on its democratic path, the presidential spokesman said.
“President Morsi said we must go out of the bottleneck without breaking the bottle,” Yasser Ali told Reuters.
Our corresponded, Hoda Abdel-Hamid, said that many of Morsi’s supporters had been “bussed in from different parts of the country,” adding that the crowd protesting Morsi’s decree were angered by his speech.
“President Morsi appeared today, he said that he was speaking to all Egyptians…but he spoke on a stage to his own constituency in front of the presidential palace,” said Abdel-Hamid.
“Many people here will tell you that if he’s a president to all Egyptians, he should have spoke to the nation from his own office, but certainly not to his constituency.”
Morsi’s decree raises very serious human rights concerns, a spokesperson for the UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay said on Friday.
“We are very concerned about the possible huge ramifications of this declaration on human rights and the rule of law in Egypt,” Rupert Colville said at the UN in Geneva.
“We also fear this could lead to a very volatile situation over the next few days, starting today in fact.”
Hassan Nafaa, professor of political science at Cairo University, told Al Jazeera that Morsi “is erecting himself as an absolute monarch” because he did not consult the opposition on the decision.
“The problem is not about the content of the decisions itself, but about the way it was taken,” he said.
“This is a dangerous situation for the whole country. It is very confusing, because we don’t know if we are in the presence of a constitutional declaration, or of a law, or of just administrative degrees,” said Nafaa.
“We have all of this together in the same statement.”