Supporters of Egypt's President Mohamed Morsi chant slogans at a… (Thomas Hartwell / Associated…)
CAIRO — Islamists in Egypt's capital rallied Saturday to support President Mohamed Morsi in what is emerging as a decisive battle with opposition forces in the country's messy political transition away from three decades of Hosni Mubarak's corrupt and undemocratic rule.
Tens of thousands of Muslim Brotherhood and ultraconservative Islamists marched in a counterdemonstration to an energized week-old protest across the Nile in Tahrir Square by opposition groups challenging Morsi's expanded powers. Islamists back the president for his religious ideology but say Morsi's central aim is to rid state institutions of the lingering influence of the Mubarak era.
"There are different segments of society here. Not everyone who supports Morsi is a radical Islamist," said Mohamed Hassanein, standing amid banners and the static of loudspeakers in front of Cairo University. "He is the president for all Egyptians. He is trying protect state institutions from remnants of the old regime."
Such have been the president's talking points since he took office in June. He and the Brotherhood explain his recent decree expanding his power and the frantic race by an Islamist-dominated assembly to finish a draft constitution as the path to parliamentary elections early next year to move the country forward. Morsi told the nation Saturday that a referendum on the constitution would be held Dec. 15.
"We hope to ascend into a new era of Egypt's history, to a bright future for our beloved people," the president said in an address to the assembly. "This is a breakthrough, the first truly representative constitution that protects the rights, freedoms and human dignity of all Egyptians."
The Brotherhood has painted many of those protesting against Morsi as Mubarak loyalists who have infiltrated a wider protest movement to disrupt Egypt's transition. That view is testament to the vast differences over how Morsi's supporters and detractors view the nation's troubled political climate, even as Cairo maneuvers to rise as a leading voice in the Arab world's changing political landscape.
Protesters in Tahrir accuse the president of overstepping his bounds, peddling conspiracies and accumulating power reminiscent of Mubarak while brushing aside court rulings to propel the Brotherhood's Islamist agenda. Morsi's supporters argue that he is a good man, if an inexperienced politician, who has been unfairly tainted by liberals and leftists in a dangerous counterrevolution.
Morsi and the Brotherhood face high stakes in coming weeks. Once an outlawed opposition movement, the Brotherhood is now the country's dominant political force. Yet it has made many missteps, reversing promises, angering opposition leaders and failing to stem economic turmoil. The march Saturday was a show of unity before the vote on the draft constitution, which, if not passed, would damage Morsi's credibility.
"I'm here to watch and see what is happening, not because I'm fully convinced of the president," said Walid Alnasr, an Egyptologist, standing in a tightening crowd of men with their ears bent toward him. "The country is suffering from years and years of corruption. Do you think these things can change in three or four or five months? The president is new. He should be given time."
As Alnasr spoke, a bearded man stood at the edge of the crowd, holding up a copy of the Koran in the sunlight. "God's law," he said, and walked away.
The rally was a mix of extremists, moderates, students, professionals, men in suits and peasants from the provinces, including one wearing a white turban who spoke of the need for sharia, or Islamic law, while others tried to hush him.
"Let somebody more educated speak," they said.
The peasant was undeterred: "We're not only here for Morsi. We're here for sharia."
Another man, Hamed Abdelhamid, said, "The people in Tahrir Square are only 1% of the population. They don't represent Egypt. Most of our population is religious and is behind the president."
But the nation's judiciary, notably the Supreme Constitutional Court dominated by Mubarak-era judges, has undercut Morsi and the Brotherhood's wider ambitions, in part by dissolving the Islamist-led parliament in June. The president's decree last month to place his office and the constitutional assembly above legal jurisdiction, a move meant to limit the court's power, drew outrage from Morsi's opponents.
The court was expected to rule Sunday to dissolve the assembly amid charges it was unrepresentative. Opposition groups say the proposed constitution is influenced by Islamic law and could set back civil rights. But with the assembly's work done, it remains uncertain what leverage the court has against a leader who has ignored its decisions.