Last updated: December 7, 2012 3:25 am

Morsi offers talks but no concessions

Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s Islamist president, has offered to hold limited talks with his opponents but made no concessions likely to defuse the rising tensions that have gripped the country over the past two weeks.

“I call for a full, productive dialogue with all figures and heads of parties, revolutionary youth and senior legal figures to meet this Saturday,” Mr Morsi said in a televised speech on Thursday night. But he sidestepped opposition demands that he revoke an edict placing his decisions temporarily beyond legal challenge and postpone a referendum on a new draft constitution scheduled for December 15.

Instead, he limited the talks to three issues, all dealing with political arrangements after the referendum, and said his expanded powers were necessary to protect the “stability and security of the nation”.

Infuriating his critics, Mr Morsi made no mention of the role of his supporters in provoking the violence and suggested that only his opponents were armed. Echoing the narrative put forward by the Muslim Brotherhood, he claimed that those demonstrating against his rule included thugs hired by “corrupt” elements from the former regime of Hosni Mubarak.

US President Barack Obama spoke to Mr Morsi after his speech telling his Egyptian counterpart that the talks should be without preconditions, according to the White House.

“President [Obama] emphasised that all political leaders in Egypt should make clear to their supporters that violence is unacceptable,” the White House said in a statement.

Mr Morsi’s speech came a day after six people were killed in fierce clashes in Cairo that started when his Muslim Brotherhood supporters broke up a protest camp outside the walls of the presidential palace. The two sides summoned reinforcements and fought pitched street battles using mainly stones and firebombs but also bullets.

On Thursday night hundreds of protesters clashed with police outside the Brotherhood’s main its headquarters in the Cairo suburb of Moqattam. Earlier a Brotherhood statement said that “150 thugs” had invaded its offices and looted and that the police stationed there had not tried to prevent them. Additional forces were called in and ONTV television reported that they fired intense vollies of teargas to disperse the protesters.

“The president’s failure to respond to [our] efforts to save the country and his continued [insistence] on ignoring the demands of the people and its protests have closed the door to all dialogue.” said Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel laureate and the leader of the opposition National Salvation Front, an alliance of some two dozen political groups.

“The substance of the president’s speech was arrogance towards the demands of the people, defending mistakes instead of correcting them, justifying the violence of his group and an invitation to a fake dialogue” tweeted Amr Hamzawi, an opposition figure.

Mr Morsi’s address came as the pressure on him to make concessions had increased throughout the day.

A council of the country’s most senior religious scholars urged the president to suspend the extra powers he assumed last month and launch a dialogue with all political forces. The Institute of Islamic Research at al-Azhar, an influential centre of learning for Sunni Muslims, also called for an end to protests, strikes and sit-ins to help create a calmer backdrop for dialogue.

The opposition Salvation Front – a coalition of some two dozen secular, leftwing and liberal groups – has protested over the past fortnight to press the president to relinquish his new powers and postpone a referendum on a new constitution.

There has also been violence in Alexandria when protesters set alight the headquarters of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party in the towns of Ismailia and Suez.

The Muslim Brotherhood said on Thursday that all those killed were from its ranks and that its supporters had foiled a plot to “invade the presidential palace, occupy it and bring down both the regime and legitimacy”.

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