CAIRO -- Tens of thousands of protesters poured into Tahrir Square on Tuesday night to contest what they believe is Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi's illegal declaration that his decisions are exempt from judicial oversight, marking the largest protests ever against the newly elected president.
It was unclear Tuesday night whether the chants of thousands calling for a second revolution would lead Mr. Morsi to rescind, modify or wait out opponents to his 5-day-old constitutional declaration. Instead, it appeared the crowds, notably absent of the Islamists who are Mr. Morsi's base, simply reflected an increasingly polarized electorate. Indeed, many who were protesting Tuesday said they had boycotted the election that led to Mr. Morsi's presidency, or had voted for his rival.
If Mr. Morsi sticks to his declaration, the feud over who has the final say over the nation's judicial matters will come to a head Sunday, when the courts are expected to make three key rulings.
The courts will determine whether Mr. Morsi acted legally when he changed the temporary constitution in July to end military rule -- leading to the firing of Field Marshall Mohammed Tantawi, head of the ruling military council -- and giving Mr. Morsi final say over military matters, the first time a civilian has had such power in Egypt's modern history; whether the assembly charged with crafting a permanent constitution is legal, since it was elected by the now-defunct Parliament, which the courts earlier ruled was illegally constituted; and whether the Shura Council, the Parliament's upper house, should be dissolved.
If the courts rule against Mr. Morsi, it remains unclear whether his decree or the judicial rulings would prevail -- or who will decide that. In the meantime, several judges have suspended their work in protest.
Protesters charged Tuesday that Mr. Morsi represents only the interests of his base, his former party, the Muslim Brotherhood, the group largely responsible for his narrow election victory. Opponents charge that Mr. Morsi is trying to consolidate power on behalf of the Brotherhood. He was elected to represent all, they say, not just those who supported him.
Mr. Morsi's declaration appeared to be a tipping point for an increasingly frustrated half of the nation that wanted to see revolutionary change. Instead, critics say, much remains the same.
Under the proposed permanent constitution, the military still controls an unchecked large segment of the economy, and the government does not review the military's budget, just as under former President Hosni Mubarak. Meanwhile, much-sought-after police reforms have yet to happen, and Mr. Morsi already gave himself legislative power after a court ruling found that Parliament had been wrongly elected.
On Monday, presidential spokesman Yasser Ali said Mr. Morsi's decree applied to sovereign matters, and that the judiciary was on board. Hours later, the judiciary council issued a statement saying it was still protesting the declaration.
The size of the crowds Tuesday rivaled the celebrations of Mr. Morsi's June election and the lifetime sentence handed down to Mubarak for the deaths of protesters during the 2011 revolution. But the crowds were far smaller -- and less representative -- than during the 2011 revolution, during which protesters camped out in Tahrir Square for 18 days. Many demonstrating Tuesday came out carrying flags of political parties that ran against Mr. Morsi.
"We had a revolution for democracy, not for one person to rule like a dictator," accountant Rami Sayed, 29, who boycotted the election that led to Mr. Morsi's presidency because he believed that it was rigged, said as he marched toward Tahrir Square.
Mr. Morsi's silence, as crowds kept arriving in Tahrir Square calling for the end of his "regime" and repeating cries of the 2011 revolution, was deafening. At one point, there were rumors that his vice president had resigned, leading to a brief denial by his office but no response to what was happening in the streets.
Mr. Morsi, in a speech before supporters Friday, said he issued the judicial declaration to expedite the writing of the permanent constitution and to rid the courts of Mubarak remnants. But many are suspicious, saying he is using the promise of reforms to grab power. And, opponents said, he wanted to get ahead of Sunday's rulings.
The Muslim Brotherhood "wants to recreate the old despotism in a new way. They are not revolutionaries," said Ashraf el Sherif, a political science lecturer at American University in Cairo. "He is saying the judiciary needs to be reformed. That's true. But he's doing it for the wrong reasons. He is trying to control them, not reform them. Control is not necessary for reforms."
Protesters arrived to Tahrir Square from three different directions, often passing the graffiti put up celebrating the revolution nearly two years ago. At times, protesters lit up the skies with fireworks, prompting one Egyptian to ask about the festivity: "Fireworks? Did he leave?"
At the White House, the Obama administration appeared reticent to weigh in on the divide in Egypt. Press secretary Jay Carney said the administration is "closely following what is obviously a still unfolding political situation." He said the administration has urged an "inclusive dialogue between the government of Egypt and all Egyptian stakeholders."
But he called it an "internal Egyptian situation that can only be resolved by the Egyptian people, through peaceful democratic dialogue," adding that the United States calls on Egyptians "exercising their right to freedom of expression to do so peacefully."