Tens of thousands of Egyptians have marched on the presidential palace in Cairo calling for President Mohamed Mursi to stand down as the political crisis over the country's controversial constitutional referendum – due in just four days – deepens.
Opposition protesters began dismantling a wall of enormous concrete blocks erected by security forces last week after deadly violence flared between warring political forces, while thousands continued to arrive at the heavily fortified palace in the leafy northern suburb of Heliopolis.
Large groups of security officers carrying riot shields and batons have formed a line along the wall of the palace and several armoured personnel carriers are stationed in the area.
The opposition wants the referendum scrapped and the constitution significantly reworked, warning that it was drafted by an Islamist-dominated committee and will weaken human rights, and specifically fails to guarantee to protect the rights of women and minorities like Coptic Christians, who make up 10 per cent of Egypt's population.
Meanwhile, in one of several rival demonstrations, pro-government supporters are converging on Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo, as well as a mosque in the suburb of Nasser City to throw their weight behind Saturday's vote.
“Yes I am angry,” said 61-year-old Mohamed Fathi, a retired real estate agent, as the opposition crowds surging around him at the presidential palace chanted anti-government slogans and waved huge Egyptian flags in the chilly winter night.
“We want to move ahead, not always look backwards, but [President] Mursi only talks to the Brotherhood, he does not talk to the people.”
Mr Fathi, who is from the president's village in the Sharqiya on the Nile delta in Egypt's north, voted for Dr Mursi in the June elections, and is bitterly disappointed with his performance.
“He should postpone the constitution and sit down to have decent talks with those in the Opposition – instead he is behaving even worse than [former president Hosni] Mubarak,” Mr Fathi said.
The latest outbreak of political unrest began after the Muslim Brotherhood-backed President Mursi issued a decree on November 22 that gave him sweeping new extra-judicial powers.
His actions angered many Egyptians, particularly those who had fought so hard to unseat the dictator and former president, Hosni Mubarak, only to find themselves facing similarly repressive laws.
Adding to the disquiet, President Morsi has granted the Egyptian army the power to arrest civilians and called on the military to coordinate with the policy to maintain security until Saturday's constitutional referendum was completed.
Although feelings were running high amongst the protesters, the scene was mostly peaceful on Tuesday night, with couples walking arm in arm through the swelling crowds and families arriving to make their voice heard.
“I am here to say 'no' to the whole referendum and the constitution,” said 56-year-old Mervat Mustafa, a professor in microbiology and immunology. “They have not made it about all Egyptians and instead the
Muslim Brotherhood have created something and are trying to impose it on the rest of us.”
Attending the protest with her friend, Prof Mustafa says she has been raising her voice against Egypt's repressive political regimes since the demonstrations against Mubarak began nearly two years ago.
“As women we will take our rights with our own two hands,” she says.
“We know the constitution has been written only by men – the government must delay the referendum and get women onto the drafting committee, and not just Muslim Brotherhood supporters, but liberal women as well.”
Complicating an already dangerously overheated political situation, Egypt's newly formed opposition coalition, the National Salvation Front, has not yet decided whether to urge its supporters to boycott the referendum or vote “no” on Saturday.
The story 'We want to move ahead': thousands march on Mursi's palace first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.