TENS of thousands of backers and opponents of Egypt’s Islamist president held competing rallies in the capital yesterday and new clashes erupted between the two sides in the country’s second largest city, Alexandria, in a prelude to massive nationwide protests planned by the opposition this weekend demanding Mohammed Morsi’s removal.
In Alexandria, where dozens were injured in fighting, opposition protesters broke into the local headquarters of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood and set fires, throwing papers and furniture out the windows.
For the past several days, Brotherhood members and Morsi’s opponents have battled it out in the streets of several cities in the Nile Delta in violence that has killed at least five people. The latest died yesterday from injuries suffered in fighting the day before, security officials said.
Many fear the clashes are a sign of more widespread and bloodier battles to come tomorrow, the anniversary of Morsi’s inauguration, when the opposition says it will bring millions into the streets around the country.
“We must be alert lest we slide into a civil war that does not differentiate between supporters and opponents,” warned Sheik Hassan al-Shafie, a senior cleric at Al-Azhar, the country’s most eminent Muslim religious institution.
The Cairo International Airport was flooded with departures, in an exodus airport officials called unprecedented. They said all flights departing yesterday to Europe, the United States and the Gulf were fully booked with no vacant seats.
Many of those leaving were families of Egyptian officials and businessmen and those of foreign and Arab League diplomats - as well as many Egyptian Christians, the officials said.
In Alexandria, on the Mediterranean coast, fighting began when thousands of anti-Morsi protesters marched toward the Brotherhood headquarters, where up to a 1,000 supporters of the president were deployed, protecting the building.
Someone on the Islamist side opened fire with birdshot on the marchers, and the melee erupted, according to awitness at the scene. Security forces fired tear gas at the Brotherhood supporters, but when the two sides continued battling, they withdrew.
At least 70 people were injured, many of them by birdshot, with one person severely injured, the head of Alexandria emergencies services told Egypt’s state news agency.
In the early evening, some protesters broke into the building and began to trash it.
Angry protesters also set fire to the local headquarters of the Brotherhood’s political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, in the Nile Delta city of Aga.
Each side has insisted it is peaceful and will remain so tomorrow - and each has blamed the other for the violence so far.
Tamarod, the activist group whose anti-Morsi petition campaign evolved into tomorrow’s planned protest, said in a statement it was opposed “to any attack against anybody, whatever the disagreement with this person was,” and accused the Brotherhood of sparking violence to scare people from participating Sunday.
Tamarod says it has collected nearly 20 million signatures in the country of 90 million demanding Morsi step down.
The Brotherhood says the five killed in the Delta clashes were its members. Some people “think they can topple a democratically elected President by killing his support groups,” Gehad el-Haddad, a Brotherhood spokesman, wrote on his Twitter account.
In Cairo, tens of thousands of Morsi supporters, mainly Islamists, filled a public square outside the Rabia el-Adawiya Mosque in Cairo, not far from the presidential palace. The palace - one of the sites where the opposition plans to hold rallies Sunday - has been surrounded by concrete walls.
Islamist parties have decided to stage a sit-in at the site through Sunday.
The crowd waved Egyptian flags while speakers addressed them from a stage. A banner on the stage proclaimed, “Support legitimacy,” the slogan Morsi’s supporters have adopted, arguing that protests must not be allowed to overturn Morsi’s legitimacy as an elected president.
“Those who burn and those who kill are the traitors of this nation,” Brotherhood preacher Safwat Hegazi told the crowd. “Mr. President, use a heavier hand, your kind heart won’t be any use. ...We want to complete our revolution and purify our country.”