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December 5, 2012 3:56 pm
Fierce clashes erupted between stone and firebomb-throwing supporters and opponents of President Mohamed Morsi on Wednesday evening, hours after Egypt’s vice-president sought to ease mounting tension.
The violence in Cairo, which prompted three of Mr Morsi’s advisers to resign, was triggered by Mr Morsi’s push to expand his powers and rush through a draft constitution.
Earlier in the day, supporters of Mr Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood chanted slogans and waved their fists in the air as they attacked and dismantled an opposition tent city in front of the building on Wednesday. As night fell rival groups converged on the site, before exploding in street clashes broadcast live on Egyptian television channels.
More than 100 people were reportedly injured in front of the palace, though much of the rest of the capital was peaceful. State television also reported clashes in Alexandria and fiery attacks on Muslim Brotherhood headquarters in the cities of Suez and Ismailiya.
Opposition activists quickly denounced vice-president Mahmoud Makki’s offer of dialogue as inadequate and insincere, suggesting the worst political crisis in Egypt following the Mr Morsi’s election last summer would continue.
Dozens were hurt on Tuesday when protesters, enraged at Mr Morsi’s expansion of powers and the draft constitution, fought with security forces in front of the presidential palace in eastern Cairo, and more were reportedly injured on Wednesday night.
Mr Makki attempted to cool tempers by using a press conference to state that the constitution could be amended before a referendum scheduled for December 15. “Debate is open for all those opposed to the new constitution,” he said in the press conference broadcast live on state television. “I urge all political powers to limit their disagreements with articles in the constitution to those that are most crucial.”
But liberals quickly condemned the offer as a ploy. One party official noted that Mr Morsi had met liberal parties and heard their concerns weeks before the constitution was unveiled.
“He took photos with us but didn’t take any of our suggestions,” said Maha Abdul-Nasser, deputy secretary-general of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, one of the groups making up a newly formed opposition National Salvation Front taking on the president.
Zaghloul El-Balshi, appointed by Mr Morsi to head the committee organising the constitutional referendum, announced late on Wednesday that he had resigned over the violence in the streets. “I will not participate in a referendum that spilled Egyptian blood,” Mr Balshi said in a television interview quoted by Egyptian news outlets. “I call on Morsi to cancel the constitutional declaration immediately.”
Liberals also said Mr Makki had admitted that he was speaking for himself and not necessarily the president, although Mr Morsi’s spokesman Yasser Ali was standing near his podium. Former foreign minister and presidential candidate Amr Moussa asked that Mr Morsi himself make a formal offer of talks.
Mr Makki also demanded that Egyptians respect the institution of the presidency. “The president has been elected in fair elections and represents the voice of at least 12m people,” he told reporters.
Egypt’s latest political crisis pits Mr Morsi and his Islamist allies against secular, liberal and leftwing opponents as well as some supporters of the deposed regime of the former president, Hosni Mubarak.
The dispute over the president’s self-declared powers and controversial constitution, hurriedly approved on Saturday by a constituent assembly abandoned by liberals, women and Coptic Christians, threatens to unravel Egypt’s fragile security, economic and political gains since Mr Morsi’s election last summer.
Egypt’s western backers have expressed increasing alarm that the country of 90m, which borders Israel and the oil-rich Arabian peninsula, was plummeting deeper into chaos. Hillary Clinton, US secretary of state, called for negotiations between the two sides.
“The upheaval we are seeing ... indicates that dialogue is urgently needed,” Mrs Clinton said during a visit to Nato headquarters in Brussels. “It needs to be two-way.”
The mostly liberal and leftwing activists who led last year’s uprising against Mr Mubarak’s decades-long rule have grown alarmed at the increasingly menacing rhetoric of Mr Morsi and his allies. Before bearded Islamist enforcers stormed the tent encampment outside the presidential palace, Essam el-Erian, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political party, Freedom and Justice, called on supporters to take the law into their own hands and cleanse the streets of troublemakers.
The Brotherhood issued a statement accusing Mr Morsi’s opponents of “challenging the stability of the country”.
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