Supporters and opponents of Egyptian leader Mohammed Mursi pelted each other with rocks and fought with sticks outside the presidential palace in Cairo on Wednesday, as a new round of protests deepened the country’s political crisis.
The opposition is demanding Mursi rescind decrees giving him near unrestricted powers and shelve a disputed draft constitution that the president’s Islamist allies passed hurriedly last week.
The dueling demonstrations and violence are part of a political crisis that has left the country divided into two camps: Mursi, his Muslim Brotherhood and their ultraconservative Islamist allies, versus an opposition made up of youth groups, liberal parties and large sectors of the public. Both sides have dug in their heels, signaling a protracted standoff.
The clashes began when thousands of Islamist supporters of Mursi descended on the area around the palace where some 300 of his opponents were staging a sit-in. The Islamists, members of Mursi’s Muslim Brotherhood, chased the protesters away from their location outside the palace’s main gate and tore down their tents. The protesters scattered in side streets where they chanted anti-Mursi slogans.
At least 100,000 opposition supporters rallied outside the palace on Tuesday, the latest of a series of mass protests against the president. Also Tuesday, smaller protests were staged by the opposition elsewhere in Cairo and across much of Egypt.
No casualties were immediately reported but witnesses reported blood streaming down the faces of several protesters.
Several opposition groups said they were calling on their supporters to head to the palace area, a move that portends more violence.
Mohamed ElBaradei, a leading opposition advocate of reform and democracy, accused the president’s supporters of a “vicious and deliberate” attack against peaceful demonstrators.
“This, in my view, is the end of any legitimacy this regime has,” said the Nobel Peace laureate. “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,” he told The Associated Press.
ElBaradei planned a news conference later on Wednesday.
Buoyed by the massive turnout on Tuesday, the mostly secular opposition held a series of meetings late Tuesday and Wednesday to decide on next steps in the standoff that began Nov. 22 with Mursi’s decrees that placed him above oversight of any kinds. It escalated after the president’s allies hurriedly pushed through a draft constitution.
While calling for more mass rallies is the obvious course of action, activists said opposition leaders also were discussing whether to campaign for a “no” vote in a Dec. 15 constitutional referendum or to call for a boycott.
Brotherhood leaders have been calling on the opposition to enter a dialogue with the Islamist leader. But the opposition contends that a dialogue is pointless unless the president first rescinds his decrees and shelves the draft charter.
Vice President Mahmoud Mekki called for a dialogue between the president and the opposition to reach a “consensus” on the disputed articles of the constitution and put their agreement in writing and have it discussed by the next parliament. But he said the referendum must go ahead and that he was making his “initiative” in a personal capacity.
If the referendum goes ahead and the draft constitution is adopted, elections for parliament’s lawmaking lower chamber will be held in February.