CAIRO – Anger between Egypt’s rival political camps erupted into street battles Wednesday after Islamist supporters of President Mohamed Morsi tore down tents belonging to anti-government demonstrators, raising the possibility of widening violence over the nation’s proposed constitution.
Pro-Morsi factions overran about 200 protesters camped outside the presidential palace in north Cairo. The clashes came after the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party called thousands of its members into the streets in a counter-demonstration to drive opposition movements from the presidential palace.
Shoving and punching spilled down a boulevard as hurled stones, swinging sticks and firebombs filled the dusk in one of the capital’s wealthiest neighborhoods. Pro-Morsi contingents, including Brotherhood followers and ultraconservative Salafis, chased opposition activists shouting: “God is great. The people support the president’s decision.”
More than 200 people were injured across a cityscape that had the charged air of a florescent-lit battlefield with competing banners, bandaged men and dinner trays used as shields to block barrages of rocks. Egyptian media reported clashes spread to other cities, including attacks on Muslim Brotherhood offices.
Early today, the Interior Ministry reported at least three people were killed in the violence.
Police were slow to react in Cairo but eventually arrived and attempted to separate the two sides even as the skirmishes raised fears that animosity between Islamists and the mainly secular opposition were a dangerous foreshadowing. Both camps threatened to march against one another and there appeared little compromise in a battle over the nation’s future.
The clashes revealed new cracks in Morsi’s government from officials disturbed by the power and meddling of the Brotherhood. Three presidential advisers resigned, including Seif Abdel-Fattah, who told the Egyptian media: “Egypt is bigger than a narrow-minded elite. … We can no longer stay silent because they (the Brotherhood) have harmed the nation and the revolution.”
The defections further marred the credibility of Morsi’s administration at a time when Egypt’s political polarization and continuing unrest have alarmed the international community. The White House is pressing Cairo to calm the crisis.
“Dialogue is urgently needed,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in Brussels. “It needs to be a two-way dialogue, not one side talking at another side, but actual respectful exchanges of views and concerns among Egyptians themselves about the constitutional process and the substance of the constitution.”
Tensions began two weeks ago when Morsi, a former Brotherhood leader, issued a decree that expanded his powers and protected the Islamist-dominated constitutional assembly from judicial oversight. The country’s highest court was expected to dissolve the assembly but delegates quickly finished a draft constitution that Morsi ordered be put to a national referendum on Dec. 15.
Opposition factions drew tens of thousands of people who marched on the presidential palace Tuesday to protest Morsi’s authority and the charter, which they say would open the country to Islamic law and a scaling back of civil rights. The demonstration angered the Brotherhood, which on Saturday avoided confrontation with the opposition by holding a rally miles away from Tahrir Square, where anti-Morsi movements have made their base.
But the Brotherhood on Wednesday was more aggressive.