CAIRO -- Faced with an unprecedented strike by the courts and massive opposition protests, Egypt's Islamist president is not backing down in the showdown over decrees granting him near-absolute powers.

Activists warn that his actions threaten a "second revolution," but Mohammed Morsi faces a different situation than his ousted predecessor, Hosni Mubarak: He was democratically elected and enjoys the support of the nation's most powerful political movement.

Already, Morsi is rushing the work of an Islamist-dominated constitutional assembly at the heart of the power struggle, with a draft of the charter expected as early as Thursday, despite a walkout by liberal and Christian members that has raised questions about the panel's legitimacy.

The next step would be for Morsi to call a nationwide referendum on the document. If adopted, parliamentary elections would be held by the spring.

Wednesday brought a last-minute scramble to seize the momentum over Egypt's political transition. Morsi's camp announced that his Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists will stage a massive rally in Cairo's Tahrir Square, the plaza where more than 200,000 opposition supporters gathered a day earlier.

The Islamists' choice of the square for Saturday's rally raises the possibility of clashes. Several hundred Morsi opponents are camped out there, and another group is fighting the police on a nearby street.

"It is tantamount to a declaration of war," said liberal politician Mustafa al-Naggar, speaking on the private Al-Tahrir TV station.

Morsi remains adamant that his decrees, which place him above oversight of any kind, including by the courts, are in the interest of the nation's transition to democratic rule.

Backing down may not be an option for the 60-year-old U.S.-educated engineer.

Doing so would significantly weaken him and the Brotherhood at a time when their image has been battered by widespread charges that they are too preoccupied with tightening their grip on power to effectively tackle the country's many pressing problems.

Morsi's pride is also a key factor in a country where most people look to their leader as an invincible figure.

He may not be ready to stomach another public humiliation after backing down twice since taking office in June. His attempt to reinstate parliament's Islamist-dominated lower chamber after it was disbanded in July by the Supreme Constitutional Court was overturned by that same court. Last month, Morsi was forced to reinstate the country's top prosecutor just days after firing him when the judiciary ruled it was not within his powers to do so.

Among Morsi's first acts after seizing near-absolute powers last week was to fire the prosecutor again.

Unlike last year's anti-Mubarak uprising, calls for Morsi's ouster have so far been restricted to zealous chants by protesters, with the opposition focusing its campaign on demands that he rescind his decrees, disband the constitutional panel and replace it with a more inclusive one, and fire the Cabinet of Prime Minister Hesham Kandil.

"There is no practical means for Morsi's ouster short of a coup, which is very, very unlikely," said Augustus Richard Norton, a Middle East expert from Boston University.

Still, the opposition, whose main figures played a key role in the anti-Mubarak uprising, may be tempted to try to force Morsi from office if they continue to draw massive crowds like Tuesday's rally, which rivaled some of the biggest anti-Mubarak demonstrations. They will also likely take advantage of the growing popular discontent with Morsi's government and the fragility of his mandate – he won just 51 percent of the vote in a presidential election fought against Mubarak's last prime minister.

With the country still reeling from the aftershocks of the 18-day uprising that toppled Mubarak's 29-year regime, activists and analysts warn that any escalation carries the risk of a second, and possibly bloody, revolution – pitting Islamists against non-Islamists, including liberals, women and minority Christians.

Ominous signs abound. Anti-Morsi crowds have attacked at least a dozen offices belonging to the Brotherhood across the nation since last week. Clashes between the two sides have left at least two dead and hundreds wounded.

The violence and polarization has led to warnings from some newspaper columnists and the public at large of the potential for "civil war."

"As opposed to seeking face-saving compromises, (escalation by Morsi) would indicate starkly that Egypt's leaders have increasingly come to understand the current moment in zero-sum terms," said Michael W. Hanna, an Egypt expert from the New York-based Century Foundation.

"Beyond the political dangers it poses, the move will increase the risks that the contests for power will spill over into the streets, with civil strife a real possibility."

While potentially destabilizing, Morsi's tug-of-war with the liberal opposition pales in comparison to his battle with the powerful judiciary, which considers the president's decrees an unprecedented assault on its authority.

On Wednesday, judges of the nation's highest appeals court and its lower sister court went on strike to protest the decrees, joining hundreds of other judges who have not worked since Sunday.

The Supreme Constitutional Court, which is to rule Sunday on the legality of the constitutional panel and parliament's upper chamber – both dominated by Morsi's Brotherhood and other Islamists – admonished the president for accusing it of trying to bring down his government.

The loss of the judiciary's goodwill could prove costly for Morsi.

Already, the judges are warning that, unless their demands are met, they will not assume their traditional role of supervising a referendum on a new constitution or the parliamentary elections that would follow. Without them, the legitimacy of any vote would be in question.

"This is the highest form of protest," said Nasser Amin, head of the Arab Center for the Independence of the Judiciary and the Legal Profession. "The judges felt that the constitutional declaration has taken away from them the dearest and most important mandates" – oversight of government decisions.

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  • Egyptian protesters chant slogans at rally in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2012. Egyptians flocked to Cairo's central Tahrir square on Tuesday for a protest against Egypt's president in a significant test of whether the opposition can rally the street behind it in a confrontation aimed at forcing the Islamist leader to rescind decrees that granted him near absolute powers. (AP Photo/ Khalil Hamra)

  • Egyptian protesters attend an opposition rally in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2012. Thousands flocked to Cairo's central Tahrir square on Tuesday for a protest against Egypt's president in a significant test of whether the opposition can rally the street behind it in a confrontation aimed at forcing the Islamist leader to rescind decrees that granted him near absolute powers.(AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

  • A masked Egyptian protester takes cover during clashes with security forces near Tahrir square, where an opposition rally has been called for to voice rejection of President Morsi's seizure of near absolute powers, in Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2012. Egyptian protesters and police clashed in Cairo on Tuesday just hours ahead of a planned massive rally by opponents of the country's Islamist president demanding he rescind decrees that granted him near-absolute powers.(AP Photo/ Khalil Hamra)

  • Tens of thousands people take part in a mass rally against a decree by President Mohamed Morsi granting himself broad powers on November 27, 2012 at Egypt's landmark Tahir Square in Cairo. Clashes between police and protesting youths erupted near Cairo's Tahrir Square, ahead of the demonstration. The planned demonstrations come a day after Morsi stuck by his controversial decree in a meeting with judges that was aimed at defusing the worst political crisis since his election in June. (GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images)

  • An Egyptian protester attempts to throw back a tear gas canister on November 27, 2012 during clashes with the Egyptian Riot Police in Omar Makram street, off Tahrir Square in Cairo. Clashes between police and protesting youths erupted on Tuesday near Cairo's Tahrir Square, ahead of a mass rally against a decree by President Mohamed Morsi granting himself broad powers. The planned demonstrations come a day after Morsi stuck by his controversial decree in a meeting with judges that was aimed at defusing the worst political crisis since his election in June. (GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images)

  • An Egyptian protester blows a stadium horn as he gestures at a cordon of security forces near Tahrir square, where an opposition rally has been called for to voice rejection of President Morsi's seizure of near absolute powers, in Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2012. Egyptian protesters and police clashed in Cairo on Tuesday just hours ahead of a planned massive rally by opponents of the country’s Islamist president demanding he rescinds decrees that granted him near-absolute powers. (AP Photo/ Khalil Hamra)

  • Egyptian security forces arrest a protester during clashes near Tahrir square in Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2012. Egyptian protesters and police clashed in Cairo on Tuesday just hours ahead of a planned massive rally by opponents of the country’s Islamist president demanding he rescinds decrees that granted him near-absolute powers.(AP Photo/ Khalil Hamra)

  • An Egyptian protester hurls a stone during clashes with security forces, unseen, in Cairo, Egypt, Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2012. Egyptian protesters firebombed one of the offices of satellite broadcaster Al-Jazeera on Wednesday and attacked a police chief who tried to negotiate an end to three days of violent protests in central Cairo.(AP Photo/Ahmed Gomaa)

  • An Egyptian protester drags a security barrier during clashes outside the country's high court in Cairo, Egypt, Saturday, Nov. 24, 2012. Egypt’s highest body of judges slammed on Saturday a recent decision by the president to grant himself near-absolute power, calling the move an “unprecedented assault” on the judiciary. The statement from the Supreme Judicial Council came as hundreds of demonstrators clashed with police outside a downtown Cairo courthouse. They were protesting the Thursday declaration by President Mohammed Morsi that courts could not overrule his decrees until a new constitution and parliament is in place, several months if not more in the future. (AP Photo/Mohammed Asad)

  • Egyptian protesters gather outside the country's high court in Cairo, Egypt, Saturday, Nov. 24, 2012. Egypt’s highest body of judges slammed on Saturday a recent decision by the president to grant himself near-absolute power, calling the move an “unprecedented assault” on the judiciary. The statement from the Supreme Judicial Council came as hundreds of demonstrators clashed with police outside a downtown Cairo courthouse. They were protesting the Thursday declaration by President Mohammed Morsi that courts could not overrule his decrees until a new constitution and parliament is in place, several months if not more in the future. (AP Photo/Mohammed Asad)

  • Egyptian protesters gather in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, Sunday, Nov. 25, 2012. President Mohammed Morsi edicts, which were announced on Thursday, place him above oversight of any kind, including that of the courts. The move has thrown Egypt's already troubled transition to democracy into further turmoil, sparking angry protests across the country to demand the decrees be immediately rescinded. The banner in Arabic, top center, reads, "members of the Muslim Brotherhood are not allowed." (AP Photo/Ahmed Gomaa)

  • An Egyptian protester shouts political slogans against President Mohamed Morsi's decree granting himself broad powers as others wave their national flag during a demonstration in Cairo's Tahrir Square on November 27, 2012. The planned demonstrations come a day after Morsi met with the country's top judges in a bid to defuse the crisis over the decree, that has sparked deadly clashes and prompted judges and journalists to call for strike. (GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images)

  • An Egyptian protester recovers from tear gas inhalation on November 27, 2012, during clashes with the Egyptian Riot Police in Omar Makram street, off Tahrir Square in Cairo. Clashes between police and protesting youths erupted near Cairo's Tahrir Square, ahead of a mass rally against a decree by President Mohamed Morsi granting himself broad powers. The planned demonstrations come a day after Morsi stuck by his controversial decree in a meeting with judges that was aimed at defusing the worst political crisis since his election in June. (GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images)

  • A group of protesters shout slogans against Egypt's President Mohammed Morsi during a demonstration in front of the White House in Washington on November 26, 2012. Morsi stuck by a controversial decree granting him sweeping powers, on the eve of planned nationwide rallies to protest the move, in the worst crisis since his election in June. (JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

  • A group of protesters shout slogans against Egypt's President Mohammed Morsi during a demonstration in front of the White House in Washington on November 26, 2012. Morsi stuck by a controversial decree granting him sweeping powers, on the eve of planned nationwide rallies to protest the move, in the worst crisis since his election in June. (JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)