Violence erupts outside Egypt presidential palace

HAMZA HENDAWI AND AYA BATRAWY
Last updated 07:33 06/12/2012

Protests continue in Tahrir Square and outside the Presidential Palace in Cairo, where officers fired teargas at up to 10,000 demonstrators angered by President Mohamed Mursi. Sarah Sheffer reports.

Tahrir Square, Cairo, Egypt
Reuters
FISTS FLY: A member of the Muslim Brotherhood and supporter of Egypt's President Mohamed Mursi punches an anti-Brotherhood protester at Tahrir Square, the focal point of the Egyptian uprising, in Cairo.

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Supporters and opponents of Egyptian leader Mohammed Mursi pelted each other with rocks and firebombs and fought with sticks outside the presidential palace in Cairo, as a new round of protests deepened the country's political crisis.

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 said. ElBaradei planned a news conference for today (NZ time).

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: Islamists 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 latest 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 group, chased the protesters away from their base outside the palace's main gate and tore down their tents. The protesters scattered in side streets where they chanted anti-Mursi slogans.

After a lull in fighting, hundreds of young Mursi opponents arrived at the scene and immediately began throwing firebombs at the president's backers, who responded with rocks.

No casualties were immediately reported but witnesses said they saw several protesters with blood streaming down their faces. Several opposition groups said they were calling on their supporters to head to the palace area, a move that portended more violence.

"I voted for Mursi to get rid of Hosni Mubarak. I now regret it," Nadia el-Shafie yelled at the 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," said the tearful el-Shafie as she was led away from the crowd of Islamists.

By nightfall, there were about 10,000 Islamists outside the palace. They set up metal barricades to keep traffic off a stretch of road that runs parallel to the palace in Cairo's upscale 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 that came with the Islamists. Atop, a man using a loudspeaker recited verses from the Quran.

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"We came to support the president. We feel there is a legitimacy that someone is trying to rob," said engineer Rabi Mohammed, a Brotherhood supporter. "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 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 November 22 with Mursi's decrees that placed him above oversight of any kind. 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 December 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 a document that would be discussed by the next parliament. But he said the referendum must go ahead and that he was making his "initiative" in a personal capacity not on behalf of Mursi. He put the number of clauses in disputes at 15, out of a total of 234.

The charter 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 as scheduled and the draft constitution is adopted, elections for parliament's lawmaking lower chamber will be held in February.

- AP

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