CAIRO: A towering wall of concrete blocks separates Egypt's protesters from the Presidential Palace, but the opposition movement remains defiant, calling for another mass rally on Tuesday over the government's decision to press ahead with a controversial vote on the country's constitution.
As Egypt's latest political crisis enters its third week, Islamist groups are threatening counter-protests, with several Salafi movements expected to demonstrate outside a centre housing many of Egypt's media groups under the banner ''Sharia First''.
They are calling for a boycott of television channels and newspapers they deem anti-Islamist.
In a further sign of the government's crisis-driven politics, tax increases on goods such as fuel, electricity, steel, cement, cigarettes and alcohol announced by President Mohammed Mursi on Sunday were reportedly rescinded less than 24 hours later after a furious reaction from both the public and his own party.
Egypt is in a precarious financial position and is awaiting the approval of a $US4.8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund. The tax increases are part of economic reforms required by the IMF before it approves the multibillion-dollar loan.
Even the President's own Freedom and Justice Party, which represents the Muslim Brotherhood in elections, condemned the tax increases, saying it rejected ''any economic policies that increase the burden on low-income citizens'' and demanding the hikes be put on hold until they could be submitted to the parliament following another round of elections.
Dr Mursi's latest about-turn followed his announcement late on Saturday night that he would partly annul the November 22 decree that gave him extraordinary extra-judicial powers and triggered this latest round of bloody protests.
That announcement was followed by the revelation that Dr Mursi had issued a new law granting the armed forces enhanced powers to arrest civilians until a constitution is passed.
The National Salvation Front, the main opposition group, rejected the constitutional referendum scheduled for December 15.
''We do not recognise the draft constitution because it does not represent the Egyptian people,'' spokesman Sameh Ashour said.
Criticised by human rights groups and the United Nations for both its content and the process by which it was drafted, the draft constitution has polarised an already fractured Egyptian population exhausted from the country's ongoing revolution and multiple parliamentary and presidential polls.
''I believe people are right to be very concerned - not just about the way the process has been short-circuited, but also about some of the elements included in, or missing from, the draft text,'' said UN human rights chief Navi Pillay.
Hundreds of protesters gathered outside the Presidential Palace on Sunday night chanting anti-Muslim Brotherhood slogans, calling for the downfall of the Mursi government and demanding the president ''hold back your thugs''.
Yet despite widespread opposition concerns that the constitution provides inadequate protections for women, Coptic Christians and other groups, as well as an over-emphasis on Islam, the Muslim Brotherhood is confident the referendum will pass.
There is some public support for the referendum, though for many it appears to be more a case of craving stability than embracing the proposed constitution.
''I will be voting for the referendum,'' said Mohamed Zayad, a 53-year-old small business owner. ''Many will vote for it, and it will pass very easily.''
Echoing the concerns of many Egyptians who are struggling to get by in a country that has been politically and economically paralysed since the downfall of dictator Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, Mr Zayad said he just ''wants to get on with life'' and that his business had been ''hurt by all these problems''.
Others are not so sure.
''[The Muslim Brotherhood] is trying to govern a country with a population it doesn't trust, an Army it can't use, judges it can't control and economy it can't fix,'' one Egyptian tweeted on Sunday.
The boss of the UN’s nuclear watchdog became a lightning rod for liberal discontent in Hosni Mubarak’s final years, but struggled to connect with the masses who led the 2011 revolution. His vocal leadership of the National Salvation Front is his latest attempt to recast himself as a national figure.
Foreign minister of Egypt under Hosni Mubarak, which to many Egyptians means he is tainted as one of the remnants of the regime, known in Arabic as fuloul. His inclusion in the National Salvation Front has sparked debate about the role of fuloul in political life.
ABDEL MONEIM ABOUL FOUTOUH
A former Muslim Brotherhood leader, in July he launched the Strong Egypt party, which has refused to join the National Salvation Front. Welcomed parts of the proposed constitution targeting the judiciary, but has protested against other articles.
Vowed to serve all Egyptians after winning the presidency in June, but the current crisis stems from the overwhelmingly Islamist character of the assembly that drafted Egypt’s proposed constitution. His supporters insist he is being hobbled by a judiciary that still includes Mubarak-era appointees.
The Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood since 2010, many secularists fear that he may exert undue influence over Morsi in domestic and social affairs, although so far his bellicose rhetoric on Israel has not been reflected in government policy.
ABDUL FATTAH SISI
Commander-in-chief of Egypt’s armed forces since August, General Sisi also holds the post of defence minister, adding to concerns that the military is colluding with the Muslim Brotherhood to preserve its power and position despite the 2011 revolution.