CAIRO — Riot police officers fired brief rounds of tear gas Tuesday night at tens of thousands of demonstrators outside the Egyptian presidential palace to protest an Islamist-backed draft constitution. It was the clearest evidence yet that the new charter has only widened the divisions that have plagued Egypt since the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak nearly two years ago.
In solidarity with the demonstrations, 11 newspapers stopped publication for the day Tuesday to protest limits on the new constitution's protections for freedom of expression. At least three private television networks said they would go dark today. And by Tuesday night demonstrators had also filled Tahrir Square and taken to the streets in Alexandria, Suez and several other cities.
President Mohammed Morsi's supporters say the constitution establishes a new democracy, not a theocracy. But while it does not impose religious rule, his opponents say, it does not preclude it.
"It seeks to impose a one-sided religious extremist national identity, contrary to Egypt's moderate character and openness to the world," a coalition of secular opposition groups declared Tuesday in a 32-point analysis of the constitution's 200-plus articles.
Still, the document promises an end to nearly two years of tumultuous transition, and the odds are against blocking its ratification when it comes up for an up-or-down vote Dec. 15, many in the opposition acknowledge.
But Morsi's opponents hope that their campaign to defeat the draft might at least narrow its margin of approval.
They hope to carry that momentum into parliamentary elections in two months and hurt the Islamists' chances at the polls. Last year Islamists won about three-quarters of the seats in the parliamentary elections, before a court dissolved the chamber.
Protesters turned out Tuesday for the 12th straight day to protest against Morsi, Egypt's first freely elected president and a former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood. Marchers recycled slogans from the revolt against Mubarak but turned them against Morsi and the Islamists.
"Bread, freedom and bring down the Brotherhood!" some chanted. "Shave your beard, show your disgrace, you will find that you have Mubarak's face!"
When the crowds reached the palace around 6 p.m., they pushed briefly against police barricades set up in the surrounding streets, and the officers responded with short volleys of tear gas. But the riot police then retreated behind the palace walls.
Around the same time two rows of riot police officers stood guard so that Morsi's motorcade could make its exit to his suburban home.
"Coward!" they chanted. "Leave!"
The crowd looted a guard house and covered the palace walls with graffiti mocking either Morsi, the Brotherhood, or other Islamists.