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Egyptians Protest Sweeping New Presidential Powers

--Matt Bradley, Joshua Mitnick and Jay Solomon contributed to this article

CAIRO--Tensions and divisions mounted in Egypt as tens of thousands of people took to the streets in the capital and elsewhere across the country in competing demonstrations for and against sweeping new powers President Mohammed Morsi granted himself by decree the day before.

After regular weekly Friday prayers, large crowds started converging on Cairo's Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the massive protests that toppled the country's former strongman, Hosni Mubarak, chanting anti-Morsi slogans and comparing him to his predecessor.

"The people want to bring down the regime," shouted some protesters echoing the most emblematic chant of the so-called Arab Spring uprisings that toppled Mr. Mubarak and several other regional leaders in 2011.

Large crowds opposed to Mr. Morsi also gathered in the predominantly Christian neighborhood of Shubra and on the west bank of the Nile in the Muhandeseen neighborhood.

On Yusuf al-Jundi Street, angry youth rushed back and forth toward giant concrete barricades separating them from the Ministry of Interior. They lobbed rocks and homemade gasoline bombs at security forces, who responded with tear gas.

"The general impression is that the country and all its institutions are gradually being taken over by the Brotherhood. But the problem is that they are filling most positions with loyalists, not competent people," said Diaa Rashwan, a senior analyst with the Cairo-based Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

Similar grievances were aired by representatives of Egyptian churches and nearly two dozen liberal figures several days ago when they withdrew from a national panel tasked with drafting a new constitution for the country by mid-December.

In his weekly address on Tuesday, Mohammed Badie, the Brotherhood's head, lashed out at those criticizing Mr. Morsi for paying more attention to Gaza than domestic matters.

In the working class neighborhood of Seyda Zeinab a large banner picturing Mr. Morsi as a pharaoh read, "Down with the president."

Meanwhile, Mr. Morsi's Islamist allies including the Muslim Brotherhood party, which is the most powerful member of the current governing coalition, amassed outside the Federation presidential palace in Heliopolis on the northeast side of the capital.

A stage was set up on the street. Mr. Morsi was expected to address the nation Friday, but the venue was not immediately known.

Thousands in Heliopolis chanted pro-Morsi slogans such as "Morsi isn't alone" and the "People want to cleanse the corruption."

Islamist speakers took turns to rile up the crowds with strident anti-Israel slogans.

"Morsi you have made us proud during the events of Gaza after our face was in the mud," said one speaker.

Egyptian TV outlets broadcast footage of large pro- and anti-Morsi rallies in the northern Mediterranean port city of Alexandria and Suez City to the east where state media said street violent confrontations took place between the rival camps.

Mr. Morsi, coming off a heady week of high-stakes diplomacy that thrust his government onto the international stage, pushed to consolidate his power at home with a set of decrees aimed at sidelining a judiciary that has been one of the last institutions challenging the Islamist government.

The declarations, which appeared to stun the Obama administration, brought into the open a long-simmering confrontation between Mr. Morsi's Islamist government and a judiciary that is populated with many secular-leaning judges appointed by Mr. Mubarak's regime.

U.S. officials on Thursday said there was no indication that Mr. Morsi was going to make this move when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Cairo on Wednesday, and the administration widely praised the Egyptian president for brokering the cease-fire between the militant group Hamas and Israel that also involved the U.S. and a host of regional powers. The agreement ended more than a week of Hamas rocket attacks on Israel and repeated bombardment of Gaza by the Israeli military.

A senior U.S. State Department official said Mr. Morsi's actions "have raised some concerns' and that officials are watching the developments closely. The official added that "among the aspirations of the revolution was to ensure that power would not be overly concentrated in the hands of one person or institution."

The set of decrees exempt the president's decisions from all judicial review and bars the courts from dissolving a constitutional-drafting committee that has increasingly come under the sway of Mr. Morsi's allies in the Muslim Brotherhood.

Several prominent Egyptian liberal political leaders, including some who ran in this year's presidential election, met in Cairo on Thursday, with most expressing their shock at Mr. Morsi's moves.

"Morsi today usurped all state powers and appointed himself Egypt's new pharaoh. A major blow to the revolution that could have dire consequences," wrote Mohammed ElBaradei, a former candidate and former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, on his official Twitter account.

The negotiations, whose conclusion was announced by Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohammed Kamel Amr with Mrs. Clinton at his side, elicited praise for Egypt's new leader, who came to power this year in the wake of the revolution that overthrew Mr. Mubarak. The Obama administration talked with cautious optimism of teaming up with Mr. Morsi to attempt to make progress on regional issues that have been stalled for decades.

At home, though, even as Mr. Morsi was enmeshed in complex negotiating sessions with Hamas and Israeli representatives as well as the prime minister of Turkey and the emir of Qatar who dropped in to participate, he was also wrangling with continued domestic unrest.

U.S. officials have urged Mr. Morsi to pursue changes that include gender and religious rights in Egypt. "We encourage all parties to work together and we call for Egyptian leaders to resolve these issues through democratic dialogue," the official said.

Critics have expressed little faith in the Morsi government's ability to deal with urgent tasks, including reviving the moribund economy, achieving national consensus over a new constitution, and repairing the country's crumbling infrastructure.

While the immediate impact of the declarations remains unclear, observers said they could help further strengthen the Muslim Brotherhood's dominance of the constitutional-drafting process and perhaps open the door to retrials of former regime officials and connected businessmen who were found not guilty in corruption trials.

Mr. Morsi's allies defended the decrees as necessary to prevent former regime influence from derailing an increasingly turbulent transition.

They insisted that the extraordinary powers bestowed by the decrees will disappear once a new constitution is drafted and goes into effect.

"He's cementing the process because other arms of the state are still loyal to the Mubarak regime," said Gehad al-Haddad, a senior adviser to the Muslim Brotherhood and Mr. Morsi's ruling Islamist coalition.

Yet the declarations also sealed Mr. Morsi's position as the dominant figure over Egypt's transition to a system many hope will be more democratic--and raised new concerns that Mr. Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood are eliminating all checks on their authority.

Ahmed Maher, head of one of the main revolutionary factions known as the April 6 Movement, called the decrees "the start of a new era of dictatorship."

Analysts said the decrees could fuel further unrest.

"This is dangerous and destabilizing," said Michael Hanna, a Middle East expert with the Century Foundation think tank in New York. "It will increase polarization and set a really damaging precedent."

Political and youth groups who formed the backbone of what has become known as the January 25 Revolution have called for a mass demonstration in Cairo on Friday to demand Mr. Morsi's government resign and to remember those killed in violent confrontation with security forces last year, when a military council ruled Egypt.

Anger swelled after the decrees were issued, with protesters amassing in Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the 2011 revolution, calling for Mr. Morsi's downfall and brandishing posters bearing a photo collage of Messrs. Morsi and Mubarak with the caption "Mohammed Morsi Mubarak."

A large pro-Morsi crowd amassed outside the Supreme Court building in the capital.

The competing challenges confronting Mr. Morsi were also on full display on Wednesday night. The Egyptian-mediated deal to end hostilities between Israelis and Palestinians hadn't been announced, when Mr. Morsi was besieged by urgent domestic matters forcing him to cancel a scheduled trip to Pakistan.

This week, a large banner near Tahrir Square read, "Muslim Brotherhood not allowed in," referring to the powerful grass-roots Islamic movement behind Mr. Morsi and his government.

On nearby walls, giant graffiti commemorates those killed in clashes with police last year, alleging a "blood-soaked" pact between the military council and the Brotherhood it said paved the way for Mr. Morsi's ascent to power.