Egyptian riot police fired tear gas Tuesday night at tens of thousands of demonstrators who were converging on the presidential palace here in Cairo to protest the country’s new draft constitution, which was rushed to completion last week by an assembly dominated by Islamists.
After firing one round of gas canisters, the police quickly retreated inside the walls of the palace grounds, apparently to avoid further clashes.
The huge scale of the protests on Tuesday dealt a blow to the legitimacy of the new charter, which goes before the country’s voters in a referendum scheduled for Dec. 15.
The secular and anti-Islamist groups that organized the protests say that the draft constitution allows religious authorities too much influence over the Egyptian state and have even likened it to the blueprints drawn up for Iran by Ayatollah Khomeini before the 1979 revolution there.
Protest organizers are still debating whether to urge Egyptians to vote against the constitution or to boycott the referendum entirely. Either way, many have their eyes on elections for a new Parliament that would be held two months after the constitution is approved. They hope to capitalize on a public backlash against the heavy-handed tactics employed in the constitution-drafting process by President Mohamed Morsi and his Islamist allies to gain seats in the new Parliament and diminish the Islamists’ political power. The first Parliament elected after the overthrow of the strongman Hosni Mubarak was dominated by Islamists, but that body was dissolved by the courts, and Mr. Morsi has been governing by decree since then.
The country’s private media outlets mounted a protest of their own against the draft constitution’s limits on freedom of expression. Eleven newspapers withheld publication on Tuesday, and at least three private television networks said they would not broadcast on Wednesday. “You are reading this message because Egypt Independent objects to continued restrictions on media liberties, especially after hundreds of Egyptians gave their lives for freedom and dignity,” declared a short statement set against a black background on the Web site of Egypt Independent, the English-language sister publication of the country’s largest independent daily, Al Masry Al Youm, on Tuesday morning. (By the afternoon, the Web site was back to normal.)
The one-day blackout and the mass march in Cairo were the most pointed actions yet in a push by liberal and secular groups to block the draft constitution, which was approved on Friday by the Islamist-dominated assembly despite the boycotts and objections of almost all its non-Islamist delegates.
Mr. Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political party, has sought to claim authority above any judicial review so that his Islamist allies could get the constitution through quickly, an act that itself prompted loud protests. Mr. Morsi argued that he needed the powers to overcome potential obstructions from judges appointed by Mr. Mubarak, the deposed president, or from secular opponents who he said were seeking to derail the transition to democracy.
His opponents say the Islamists are trying to ram through a flawed constitution that will allow them to push Egyptian society in the direction of religious conservatism.
Among other criticisms, analysts and human rights groups say the draft contains loopholes that could eviscerate its provisions for freedom of expression. Although it ostensibly declares a right to free speech, the constitution also expressly prohibits “insults” to “religious prophets.”
The charter declares that one purpose of the news media is to uphold public morality and the “true nature of the Egyptian family,” and it specifies that government authorization will be required to operate a television station or a Web site.
“The protection of freedom of expression is fatally undermined by all the provisions that limit it,” said Heba Morayef, a researcher with Human Rights Watch who has studied the text. “On paper, they have not protected freedom of expression. It is designed to let the government limit those rights on the basis of ‘morality’ or the vague concept of ‘insult.’ ”
What’s more, critics say, the push to ratify the draft coincides with a cascade of accusations from Egypt’s new Islamist leaders that elements of the media are biased against them, and even that they are part of a counterrevolutionary conspiracy to thwart the transition to democracy rather than let Islamists win.
As part of a decree expanding his own powers until the passage of the constitution, Mr. Morsi recently passed a law for “protection of the revolution” that covered crimes including insults to the president, the Parliament or the courts. And he created a specially designated circuit within the court system to try those suspected of violating the law, along with those accused of abuses against civilians under the Mubarak government.
Mr. Morsi’s justice minister has already initiated investigations against at least three journalists for insulting the judiciary — the branch of government with the most crucial role in protecting the free press, said Ms. Morayef of Human Rights Watch.
“You are calling insulting the authorities a crime against the revolution?” she said. “That is authoritarianism. That is a lack of understanding of what ‘free expression’ means.”
The Web site of the state newspaper Al Ahram reported that at least 60 of its own journalists had joined a march to protest the constitutional restrictions.
Advisers to Mr. Morsi counter that the draft constitution expands on the negligible protections of free expression that prevailed under Mr. Mubarak, and noted that in one of his few previous presidential decrees, Mr. Morsi acted to support media freedom. In the Mubarak era, insulting the president was a crime punishable by imprisonment. But after a newspaper editor was jailed for that offense in late August, Mr. Morsi changed the law to forbid incarceration until a court verdict, allowing the imprisoned journalist, Islam Afifi of Al Dustour, to go free without spending even a night behind bars.
Adding to the suspense, a top Egyptian court on Tuesday postponed an expected session to consider the legitimacy of Mr. Morsi’s expansion of his powers until passage of the constitution.
And his party issued a statement warning prominent leaders of the secular opposition that it would hold them responsible for any acts of violence that occurred. It directed the warning at three former presidential candidates: Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency; Hamdeen Sabahi, a Nasserite party leader; and Amr Moussa, a foreign minister under Mr. Mubarak.