CAIRO - Egypt's opposition called for mass protests on Tuesday against the Islamist-led government's drive to hold a snap referendum on a new constitution after sweeping aside judicial obstacles.
President Mohamed Morsi ignited a storm of protest when he temporarily assumed extraordinary powers on November 22 to prevent a judiciary still dominated by appointees of ousted predecessor Hosni Mubarak from derailing a troubled political transition.
Riot police mustered around the presidential palace after activists said they would march towards it later in the day in a "last warning" to Mursi, an Islamist narrowly elected by popular vote in June.
A few hundred protesters gathered near his house in a suburb west of Cairo, chanting slogans against his decree and against the Muslim Brotherhood. Police closed the road to stop them from coming any closer, a security official said.
Liberals, leftists, Christians and others have accused Morsi of staging a dictatorial power grab to steamroller through a constitution drafted by an assembly packed with Islamists.
Egypt's most widely read independent newspapers did not publish on Tuesday in protest at Morsi's "dictatorship." Banks planned to close three hours early, one bank official said.
However, so far there has been only a limited response to opposition calls for a campaign of civil disobedience in the Arab world's most populous country and cultural hub.
"The presidency believes the opposition is too weak and toothless. Today is the day we show them the opposition is a force to be reckoned with," said Abdelrahman Mansour in Cairo's Tahrir Square, the cradle of the anti-Mubarak revolt.
"Morsi must come out to talk and hear the people, the opposition," the activist said. "The opposition says 'no' to the constitution and 'no' to autocracy."
The Islamists, who have already pushed the army out of the political driving seat, sense their moment has come to shape the future of Egypt, a longtime US ally whose peace treaty with Israel is a cornerstone of Washington's Middle East policy.
The Muslim Brotherhood and its allies, who staged a huge pro-Morsi demonstration on Saturday, are confident that enough members of the judiciary will be available to oversee the December 15 referendum, despite calls by some judges for a boycott.
Cairo stocks gained nearly 3 percent in early trading as investors took heart at what they saw as prospects for a return to stability in a country whose divisions have only widened since a mass uprising toppled Mubarak on February 11, 2011.
Mohamed Radwan, at Pharos Securities brokerage, said the Supreme Judicial Council's agreement to supervise the referendum had generated confidence that the vote would happen "despite all the noise and demonstrations that might take place until then."