After three days of growing street marches demanding his ouster, President Lucio Gutierrez dissolved the Supreme Court and declared a state of emergency in Quito.
His political foes immediately labelled the measure the act of a dictator.
Speaking in a televised address to the nation Friday night, Gutierrez said he was using the powers granted him by the Constitution to dismiss the Supreme Court appointed in December after an attempt in Congress to impeach him.
"The measure... was taken because Congress until now has not resolved the matter of the current Supreme Court, which is generating national commotion and especially in the city of Quito... which rejects the operation of the Supreme Court," Gutierrez said, with the military high command standing behind him.
The state of emergency placed the military in charge of public order and suspended individual rights, including the right to free expression and public assembly.
The military command went on national television to give its implicit support to Gutierrez.
Admiral Victor Hugo Rosero, head of the armed forces, said the only purpose of the state of emergency was "to recover the order, peace and tranquillity lost during the last days."
Despite the restrictions on public meetings, tens of thousands of Quito's residents poured into the streets to protest the measure, shouting that Gutierrez, a cashiered army colonel before his election in 2002, was a dictator.