Police fired tear gas in a street leading to Cairo’s Tahrir Square, heart of the 2011 anti-Mubarak uprising, where thousands demanded Morsi step down, and accused him of launching a “coup”. There were also violent protests in Suez, Alexandria, and Port Said.
“The people want to bring down the regime,” shouted protesters in Tahrir, echoing a chant used in the uprising that forced Mubarak to step down. “Get out, Morsi,” they chanted.
Morsi’s aides said the presidential decree was to speed up a protracted transition that has been hindered by legal obstacles but Morsi’s rivals were quick to condemn him as a new autocratic pharaoh who wanted to impose his Islamist vision on Egypt.
“I am for all Egyptians. I will not be biased against any son of Egypt,” Morsi said on a stage outside the presidential palace, adding that he was working for social and economic stability and the rotation of power.
“Opposition in Egypt does not worry me, but it has to be real and strong,” he said, seeking to placate his critics and telling Egyptians not to worry and that he was committed to the revolution. “Go forward, always forward... to a new Egypt.”
Buoyed by accolades from around the world for mediating a truce between Hamas and Israel, Morsi ordered that an Islamist-dominated assembly writing the new constitution could not be dissolved by legal challenges.
“Morsi a ‘temporary’ dictator,” was the headline in the independent daily Al-Masry Al-Youm.
Morsi — an Islamist whose roots are in the Muslim Brotherhood — also gave himself sweeping powers that allowed him to sack the unpopular general prosecutor 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 said.
The president’s decree said that any decrees he issued while no parliament sat could not be challenged, moves that consolidated his power but look set to polarise Egypt further, threatening more turbulence in a nation at the heart of the Arab Spring.
The turmoil has weighed heavily on Egypt’s faltering economy that was thrown a lifeline this week when a preliminary deal was reached with the IMF for a $4.8bn (€3.7bn) loan. But it also means unpopular economic measures.
In Alexandria, north of Cairo, protesters ransacked an office of the Brotherhood’s political party, burning books and chairs in the street. Supporters of Morsi and opponents clashed elsewhere in the city, leaving 12 injured.
A party building was also attacked by stone-throwing protesters in Port Said, and demonstrators in Suez threw petrol bombs that burned banners outside the party building.
Morsi’s decree is bound to worry Western allies, particularly the US — a generous benefactor to Egypt’s military — which effusively praised Egypt for its part in bringing Israelis and Palestinians to a ceasefire on Wednesday.
The West may become concerned about measures that, for example, undermine judicial independence. But one Western diplomat said it was too early to judge and his nation would watch how the decree was exercised in the coming days.
“We are very concerned about the possible huge ramifications of this declaration on human rights and the rule of law in Egypt,” Rupert Colville, spokesman for the UN human rights commissioner Navi Pillay, said at the UN in Geneva.