Egyptian president’s supporters accused of ‘vicious’ attack against those protesting over decrees and draft constitution
Supporters and opponents of President Mohamed Morsi threw rocks and firebombs at each other during violent clashes outside the presidential palace in Cairo on Wednesday, as a new round of protests deepened Egypts political crisis.
Mohamed ElBaradei, a leading opposition advocate of reform, accused Morsi’s supporters of a “vicious and deliberate” attack against peaceful demonstrators.
“We hold President Morsi and his government completely responsible for the violence that is happening in Egypt today,” he said. “A regime that is not able to protect its people and is siding with his own sect, [and] thugs is a regime that lost its legitimacy and is leading Egypt into violence and bloodshed.”
The opposition is demanding Morsi rescind decrees giving him near unrestricted powers and shelve a disputed draft constitution his Muslim Brotherhood allies passed last week.
The political crisis has divided Egypt. Islamists and an opposition made up of youth groups, liberal parties and large sectors of the public have dug in their heels, signalling a protracted standoff.
The latest clashes began when thousands of Islamist supporters of Morsi descended on the area around the palace where some 300 of his opponents were staging a sit-in. Members of the Brotherhood chased the protesters away from outside the main gate and tore down their tents. The protesters fled into side streets where they chanted anti-Morsi slogans.
After a lull in fighting, hundreds of young Morsi opponents arrived and began throwing firebombs at the president’s backers, who responded with rocks.
No casualties were immediately reported but witnesses said they saw several bloodied protesters. Several opposition groups said they were calling on their supporters to head to the palace.
“I voted for Morsi to get rid of Hosni Mubarak. I now regret it,” Nadia el-Shafie yelled at Brotherhood supporters from a side street. “God is greater than you. Don’t think this power or authority will add anything to you. God made this revolution, not you.”
By nightfall, there were about 10,000 Morsi supporters outside the palace. They erected metal barricades to keep traffic off a stretch of road that runs parallel to the palace in Heliopolis district. Some of them appeared to plan staging their own sit-in.
“May God protect Egypt and its president,” read a banner hoisted on a truck. On top of the vehicle was a man reciting verses from the Qu’ran via a loud speaker.
“We came to support the president. We feel there is a legitimacy that someone is trying to rob,” said Rabi Mohammed, an engineer. “People are rejecting democratic principles using thuggery.”
At least 100,000 opposition supporters rallied outside the palace on Tuesday and smaller protests were staged by the opposition elsewhere in Cairo and across much of Egypt. It was the latest of a series of mass protests against the president.
Buoyed by the turnout on Tuesday, the mostly secular opposition held a series of meetings on Wednesday to decide on next steps in the standoff that began 22 November over Morsi’s presidential decrees. It escalated after his allies hurriedly pushed through a draft constitution.
As well as more demonstrations, activists said opposition leaders were discussing whether to campaign for a “no” vote in a constitutional referendum scheduled for 15 December or to call for a boycott.
Brotherhood leaders have been calling on the opposition to enter a dialogue with Morsi. But the opposition says dialogue is pointless unless the president first rescinds his decrees and shelves the draft constitution.
Mahmoud Mekki, Egypt’s vice-president, called for dialogue between Morsi and the opposition to reach a “consensus” on the disputed articles of the constitution and put their agreement in a document that would be discussed by the next parliament. He put the number of clauses in disputes at 15, out of a total of 234, but said the referendum must go ahead.
The draft constitution has been criticised 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 the Islamists’ enemies.
If the referendum goes ahead next week and the draft constitution is adopted, elections for parliament’s lower chamber will be held in February.