By Edmund Blair and Yasmine Saleh
CAIRO, Nov 30 (Reuters) - Thousands of Egyptians protested against President Mohamed Mursi on Friday after an Islamist-led assembly raced through approval of a new constitution in a bid to end a crisis over the Islamist leader's newly expanded powers.
"The people want to bring down the regime," they chanted in Tahrir Square, echoing the chants that rang out in the same place less than two years ago and brought down Hosni Mubarak.
Mursi said the decree halting court challenges to his decisions, which sparked eight days of protests and violence by Egyptians calling him a new dictator, was "for an exceptional stage" and aimed to speed up the democratic transition.
"It will end as soon as the people vote on a constitution," he told state television while the constituent assembly was still voting on the draft, which the Islamists say reflects Egypt's new freedoms. "There is no place for dictatorship."
The opposition cried foul. Liberals, leftists, Christians, more moderate Muslims and others had withdrawn from the assembly, saying their voices were not being heard.
Thousands took to the streets in Cairo and other places, such as Alexandria and cities on the Suez Canal and in the Nile Delta, responding to opposition calls for a big turnout.
It did not match the tens of thousands who demonstrated on Tuesday but rallies tend to gather pace later in the day.
Protesters said they would push for a 'no' vote in a referendum, which could happen as early as mid-December. If approved, it would immediately cancel the president's decree.
"We fundamentally reject the referendum and constituent assembly because the assembly does not represent all sections of society," said Sayed el-Erian, 43, a protester in Tahrir and member of a party set up by opposition figure Mohamed ElBaradei.
"Leave, leave," some chanted, another anti-Mubarak slogan.
In the Cairo mosque where Mursi said Friday prayers, some opponents chanted against him but backers quickly surrounded him shouting in support, journalists and a security source said.
The plebiscite on the constitution is a gamble based on the Islamists' belief they can mobilise voters again after winning all the elections since Mubarak was overthrown in February 2011.
Mursi will be able to guarantee the backing of his well-organised Brotherhood and Islamist allies, as well as many Egyptians who are simply exhausted by the turmoil.
"He just wants us to move on and not waste time in conflicts," said 33-year-old Cairo shopowner Abdel Nasser Marie. "Give the man a chance and Egypt a break," he said.
However, Mursi needs the cooperation of judges to oversee the vote, though many were angered by Mursi's decree that they said undermined the judiciary. Some judges have gone on strike.
The assembly concluded the vote after a 19-hour session, quicker than many expected, approving all 234 articles covering presidential powers, the status of Islam, the military's role and rights of citizens.
In one historic change, the president was limited to eight years in office after Mubarak served for 30 years. It introduced a degree of civilian oversight over the military - though not enough for critics.
An Egyptian official said Mursi was expected to approve the document on Saturday and then has 15 days to hold a referendum.
"This is a revolutionary constitution," said Hossam el-Gheriyani, head of the assembly in a live broadcast of the session, asking members to launch a cross-country campaign to "explain to our nation its constitution".
The vote was often interrupted by bickering between the mostly Islamist members and Gheriyani over the articles. Several articles were amended on the spot before they were voted on and the assembly worked till early morning to finish the job.
Critics argue it is an attempt to rush through a draft they say has been hijacked by the Muslim Brotherhood, which backed Mursi for president in a June election, and its Islamist allies.
Two people have been killed and hundreds injured in protests since the decree was announced on Nov. 22, deepening the divide between the newly empowered Islamists and their critics.
Setting the stage for more tension, the Muslim Brotherhood and its Islamist allies have called for pro-Mursi rallies on Saturday. But officials from the Brotherhood's party changed the venue and said they would avoid Tahrir Square.
Seeking to placate opponents, Mursi welcomed criticism but said there was no place for violence. "I am very happy that Egypt has real political opposition," he told state television.
He said Egypt needed to attract investors and tourists. The crisis threatens to derail a fragile economic recovery after two years of turmoil. Egypt is waiting for the International Monetary Fund to finalise a $4.8 billion loan to help it out.
An alliance of opposition groups pledged to keep up protests and said broader civil disobedience was possible to fight what it described as an attempt to "kidnap Egypt from its people".
Several independent newspapers said they would not publish on Tuesday in protest. One of the papers also said three private satellite channels would halt broadcasts on Wednesday.
The draft injects new Islamic references into Egypt's system of government but keeps in place an article defining "the principles of sharia" as the main source of legislation - the same phrase found in the previous constitution.
The president can declare war with parliament's approval, but only after consulting a national defence council with a heavy military and security membership. That was not in the old constitution, used when Egypt was ruled by ex-military men.
Activists highlighted other flaws such as worrying articles pertaining to the rights of women and freedom of speech.
A new parliamentary election cannot happen until the constitution is passed. Egypt has been without an elected legislature since the Islamist-dominated lower house was dissolved in June, based on a court order.
"The secular forces and the church and the judges are not happy with the constitution; the journalists are not happy, so I think this will increase tensions in the country," said Mustapha Kamal Al-Sayyid, a Cairo University political science professor.