By HAMZA HENDAWI and AYA BATRAWY, The Associated Press

CAIRO (AP) -- Tens of thousands of Egyptians massed in Cairo Tuesday for a march to the presidential palace to protest the assumption by the nation's Islamist president of nearly unrestricted powers and a draft constitution hurriedly adopted by his allies.

In the coastal city of Alexandria, some 10,000 opponents of President Mohammed Morsi gathered in the center of the country's second largest metropolis. They chanted slogans against the Egyptian leader and his Muslim Brotherhood.

The marches come amid rising anger over the draft charter and decrees issued by Mohammed Morsi giving himself sweeping powers. Morsi called for a nationwide referendum on the draft constitution on Dec. 15.

It is Egypt's worst political crisis since the ouster nearly two years ago of authoritarian president Hosni Mubarak. The country has been divided into two camps: Morsi and his fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, as well as ultraconservative Salafi Islamists, versus youth groups, liberal parties and large sectors of the public.

Hundreds of black-clad riot police deployed around the Itihadiya palace in Cairo's district of Heliopolis. Barbed wire was also placed outside the complex, and side roads leading to it were blocked to traffic.

Thousands of protesters gathered in Cairo's Tahrir Square, joining several hundred who have been camping out there for nearly two weeks. There were other protests around the city. These were separate from the demonstrations outside the palace.

"Freedom or we die," chanted a crowd of several hundred outside a mosque in the Abbasiyah district. "Mohammed Morsi! Illegitimate! Brotherhood! Illegitimate!" they also yelled, alluding to Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood.

"This is the last warning before we lay siege on the presidential palace," said Mahmoud Hashim, a 21-year-old student from the city of Suez on the Red Sea. "We want the presidential decrees cancelled."

Several hundred protesters also gathered outside Morsi's residence in an upscale suburb not far from the Itihadiya. "Down with the sons of dogs. We are the power and we are the people," they chanted.

By nightfall, the crowd outside the palace was estimated at more than 10,000, with many chanting "erhal, erhal," Arabic for "leave, leave" and "the people want to topple the regime" - two well-known chants from the 2010-2011 Arab Spring revolts.

Morsi, who narrowly won the presidency in a June election, appeared to be in no mood for compromise.

A statement by his office said the Egyptian leader met on Tuesday with his deputy, prime minister and several top Cabinet members to discuss preparations for the referendum. The statement appeared also to suggest that it is business as usual at the presidential palace, despite the rally.

A large turnout would signal sustained momentum for the opposition, which brought out at least 200,000 protesters to Cairo's Tahrir Square a week ago and a comparable number on Friday, demanding that Morsi's decrees be rescinded.

The Islamists responded by sending hundreds of thousands of supporters into Cairo's twin city of Giza on Saturday and across much of the country. Thousands also imposed a siege on Egypt's highest court, the Supreme Constitutional Court.

The court had been widely expected Sunday to declare the constitutional assembly that passed the draft charter on Friday to be illegitimate and to disband parliament's upper house, the Shura Council. Instead, the judges went on strike after they found their building under siege by protesters.

The opposition has yet to say whether it intends to focus its energy on rallying support for a boycott of the Dec. 15 vote or defeating the draft with a "no" vote.

"We haven't made any decisions yet, but I'm leaning against a boycott and toward voting `no'," said Hossam al-Hamalawy of the Socialist Revolutionaries, a key group behind last year's uprising. "We want a (new) constituent assembly that represents the people and we keep up the pressure on Morsi."

The strikes were part of a planned campaign of civil disobedience that could bring in other industries.

On Tuesday, at least eight influential dailies, a mix of opposition party mouthpieces and independent publications, suspended publication for a day to protest against what many journalists see as the restrictions on freedom of expression in the draft constitution.

The country's privately owned TV networks planned their own protest Wednesday, when they will blacken their screens all day.

Morsi's Nov. 22 decrees placed him above oversight of any kind, including the courts. The constitutional panel then rushed through a draft constitution without the participation of representatives of liberals and Christians. Only four women, all Islamists, attended the marathon, all-night session.

The charter has been criticized for not protecting the rights of women and minority groups, and many journalists see it as restricting freedom of expression. Critics also say it empowers Islamic religious clerics by giving them a say over legislation, while some articles were seen as tailored to get rid of Islamists' enemies.

___

Associated Press writer Maggie Michael contributed.

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  • Egyptian army soldiers set up barbed wire barricades and deploy tanks outside of the Egyptian presidential palace in Cairo on December 6, 2012, after a night of clashes between supporters and opponents of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi. (GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Egyptian protesters chant anti Muslim Brotherhood slogans outside the presidential palace, in Cairo, Egypt, Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2012. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

  • An Egyptian man shouts slogans during a march towards the presidential palace in Cairo on December 4, 2012, protesting President Mohamed Morsi's decree widening his powers. (Gianluigi Guercia/Getty Images)

  • Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi’s supporters try to detain an opposition protester during clashes outside the presidential palace, in Cairo, Egypt, Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2012. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

  • An Egyptian protesters flashes the victory sign as he holds a poster in Arabic that reads, "leave," outside the presidential palace, in Cairo, Egypt, Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2012. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

  • Muslim Brotherhood members and supporters of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi arrive outside the Egyptian presidential palace on December 5, 2012 in Cairo, Egypt. (GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Supporters of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi clash with anti-Morsi protesters outside the Egyptian presidential palace on December 5, 2012 in Cairo, Egypt. (GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Muslim Brotherhood members and supporters of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi arrive outside the Egyptian presidential palace on December 5, 2012 in Cairo, Egypt. (GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Supporters of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi clash with anti-Morsi protesters outside the Egyptian presidential palace on December 5, 2012 in Cairo, Egypt. (GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images)

  • A supporter of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, pictured at right, chants slogans during a demonstration outside the presidential palace, in Cairo, Egypt, Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2012. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

  • An Egyptian protester holds a poster with Arabic that reads, "leave," during a demonstration outside the presidential palace, in Cairo, Egypt, Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2012. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

  • Opponents of President Mohammed Morsi chant slogans outside the presidential palace, in Cairo, Egypt, Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2012. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

  • Supporters of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi chant slogans during a demonstration outside the presidential palace, in Cairo, Egypt, Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2012. Supporters of Morsi and opponents clashed outside the presidential palace. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

  • Fireworks burst over Tahrir Square as protesters gather in Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

  • Egyptian protesters chant anti Muslim Brotherhood slogans during a demonstration in front of the presidential palace in Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)

  • Egyptian protesters chant anti Muslim Brotherhood slogans during a demonstration in front of the main gate of the presidential palace, background, in Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)

  • Egyptian protesters carry national flags and chant anti Muslim Brotherhood slogans during a demonstration in front of the presidential palace in Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)

  • Egyptian protesters chant anti Muslim Brotherhood slogans during a demonstration in front of the presidential palace, seen in the background, in Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)

  • An Egyptian protester holds placard in Arabic that reads, "yes for the rights of martyrs," during a demonstration in front of the presidential palace in Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)

  • Egyptian protesters chant anti-Muslim Brotherhood slogans during a rally in front of the presidential palace, in Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)

  • Egyptian riot police stand guard behind barbed wire while protesters chant anti Muslim Brotherhood slogans during a demonstration in front of the presidential palace, in Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)

  • Protesters chant slogans and wave national flags in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

  • An Egyptian protester takes a photo with her mobile phone as she chants slogans in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

  • Protesters chant slogans and wave national flags in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

  • An Egyptian walks past a stand displaying state-owned newspapers in Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)

  • A boy watches as an Egyptian security lay out barbed wire along streets leading to the Itihadiya presidential palace in the neighbourhood of Heliopolis in Cairo, on December 4, 2012. (AFP/Getty Images)

  • Protesters chant slogans and wave Egyptian national flags in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

  • Egyptian security lay out barbed wire along streets leading to the Itihadiya presidential palace in the neighbourhood of Heliopolis in Cairo, on December 4, 2012. (AFP/Getty Images)

  • Egyptian protesters chant anti-Muslim Brotherhood slogans during a rally in front of the presidential palace, in Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)

  • Egyptian Constitutional Assembly secretary general Amr Darrag holds a copy of the new Egyptian constitution draft on December 4, 2012 during a apress conference at the Shura Council in Cairo, Egypt. (GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Protesters pass a banner with Arabic that reads, "Ahmed Gomaa severely wounded in the brain and is lying in intensive care," referring to the injuries sustained by Gomaa, a photographer working for the Associated Press, who was severely beaten on Nov. 27 by Egyptian security forces while covering clashes in Tahrir Square, in Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

  • Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi’s supporters, background, clash with opponents, foreground, outside the presidential palace, in Cairo, Egypt, Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2012. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)