Egyptians have returned to Tahrir Square many times since Hosni Mubarak fell, but rarely in these numbers.
After the massive protest on Tuesday 27 November, some are even beginning to talk of a second uprising, a “November revolution”.
Meanwhile President Morsi’s supporters are planning their response – a gathering in Tahrir on Saturday raising fears of clashes between the different camps.
Not long ago, protesters were calling for an end to military rule. Today, large numbers are chanting against President Mohamed Morsi – the country’s first elected president and the man many had hoped would finally restore the rule of law.
But instead, President Morsi has trampled on it – decreeing his decisions can’t be challenged by the courts, and that Egypt’s Constituent Assembly can’t be dissolved. The body is facing an imminent ruling on its legitimacy by Egypt’s constitutional court, and is striving to submit the draft constitution to the President today.
Mohamed Morsi has also fired the Public Prosecutor and allowed for new investigations to be opened – if new evidence or circumstances came to light - into police officers and officials the courts have acquitted of killing protesters, as well as enacting a new law to “protect the revolution” that would allow for a pre-trial detention period of up to six months for press and media offences, strikes, protests and “thuggery”.
Many have told us that they felt they had no choice but to return to the streets. But the days ahead are full of fear and uncertainty. Clashes between the president’s opponents and supporters have already been reported in cities across Egypt, and both camps plan more marches in the next two days.
While Tahrir Square itself has been largely peaceful when we’ve visited, the streets leading to the nearby parliament and US embassy have become the scene of a tense and prolonged stand-off between protesters and the riot police.
There we’ve seen the police repeatedly firing tear gas into the crowd. Some protesters have replied with Molotov cocktails. But they are the few – behind them stand the vast, irrepressible majority of peaceful protesters.
On Tuesday, as the gas dispersed, we found one young boy sitting on a pavement, holding an empty gas canister in his hands. US-made, it had written first-aid instructions in a language the boy couldn’t read.
Walking through the area, we saw protesters holding similar canisters. All were wondering what to make of them – why objects made so far away were once again being used on the streets of Cairo. All tear gas canisters we examined had the manufacturing date of March 2011 and had therefore been sold to Egypt after the uprising.
The truth is tear gas has become just another fact of life for many here. As we fled another tear gas shot, we saw one of Cairo’s street vendors stoically pushing his heavy cart through the stinging fumes – determinedly following protesters back towards Tahrir Square. As the gas began to disperse, a fast-food delivery man tried to navigate the crowds on a motorcycle, beeping impatiently. Protesters chatted on their phones and tried to fend off street vendors selling tissues to offset the effects of the now dispersing gas.
Some have died here. At Cairo’s al-Hilal hospital a doctor told us that one of the protesters, Ahmed Negib, had been left brain dead on 25 November after he was hit by glass marbles, apparently fired from a shotgun in unclear circumstances. Another protester, Fathy Gharib, admitted to the hospital on 27 November died after suffering a stroke at the massive Tahrir protest.
The deaths have fuelled the rising anger at the authorities. Many who spoke of the president’s decree referred in the same breath to Mohamed Gaber Salah, a young teenager shot on 20 November at a protest on Cairo’s Mohamed Mahmoud Street.
Like many, he had gone to remember the 51 people killed across Egypt, many on that the same street a year earlier. He paid with his life. Islam Masoud, another young teenager, was also killed in Damanhour, north of Egypt, while supporters and opponents of Morsi’s latest decree fought in the streets.
Back in Tahrir Square itself we found an old friend – Azza Hilal Ahmad Suleiman. Last December, she had been targeted by soldiers after she tried to protect a woman protester. Now, grinning cheerfully, she asked us what the outside world must think of the new demonstrations.
Sipping tea with her in Tahrir on Tuesday evening, we watched march after march pour into the square – thousands of people from all walks of life, all chanting against a president who many of them must have voted for just months ago.
Egypt’s judges have reacted to President Morsi’s decree with outrage, denouncing it an attack on their independence. A strike called by the Judges Club has paralyzed courts around the country, including Egypt’s highest court of appeal, the Court of Cassation.
Walking past a shut court, it was deeply unsettling to realize that a President who was once arrested while protesting for the independence of the judiciary has now become their bitterest opponent.
And then there is the process towards a new constitution. On Wednesday, as we were speaking to leading housing activist Manal Tibe, the news broke that the Constituent Assembly had been given just a day to finalize this vital document. Months of work, and perhaps the future of generations to come, were now being condensed into a few hurried hours.
Manal, herself a former member of the assembly and one of only seven women in the 100-strong body, spoke of her incredulity and anger at the decision.
She’d resigned after it failed to protect key human rights such as women’s rights, freedom of religion and expression, or banning unfair trials of civilians before military courts and forced evictions.
Like many other Egyptians, she’d long ago given up hoping that the process of writing the new constitution would be inclusive and consultative. But this latest decision was a further blow to a process that was supposed to mark Egypt’s return to human rights and rule of law.
The latest decision was a further blow to a process that was supposed to mark Egypt’s return to human rights and rule of law. As we looked over the articles approved by the assembly this morning, our disbelief grew. Very basic provisions that would have enshrined human rights are vague or missing; there are no articles which explicitly ban discrimination against women.
Instead, reform has been replaced with repression. The draft bans criticism of religion, and explicitly allows for the military trials of civilians – a last minute concession to the army that has written injustice into the very cornerstone of Egyptian law.
In one tumultuous week, Egyptians have been forced in disbelief and anger back into the sidelines. Days ago, the protesters made it clear that President Morsi’s only way out was to strike down his own decree. But the botched constitutional process has only fanned the flames of the protesters’ anger.
One thing is certain: the protesters will not accept a return to rule by decree, or accept a constitution written by a committee that doesn’t speak for them.
By Amnesty International's Middle-East & North Africa team in Cairo