Guards patrol Egypt’s great divide as Morsi offers talks

Republican Guard soldiers closed off a road leading to the presidential palace in Cairo. Picture: Reuters
Republican Guard soldiers closed off a road leading to the presidential palace in Cairo. Picture: Reuters
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Egypt’s Republican Guard ­restored order around the ­presidential palace in the capital yesterday after seven people died in violent clashes.

Hundreds of supporters of president Mohammed Morsi who had camped out near the palace overnight withdrew before a mid-afternoon deadline set by the Republican Guard, an elite unit whose duties include protecting the palace. Scores of opposition protesters remained, but were kept away by a barbed wire barricade flanked by tanks.

Last night, Mr Morsi invited political groups and leaders to meet tomorrow to begin a national dialogue on the way ahead. In a televised address he said: “I call for a full, productive dialogue with all figures and heads of parties, revolutionary youth and senior legal figures to meet [this ­Saturday]”.

The military played a big role in removing president Hosni Mubarak during last year’s popular revolt, taking over to manage a transitional period, but had stayed out of the latest crisis.

Mr Morsi’s Islamist supporters fought opposition protesters well into the early hours yesterday during rival demonstrations over the president’s 22 November decree to expand his powers to help him push through an Islamist-drafted constitution.

Officials said seven people were killed and 350 wounded in the violence, for which each side blamed the other.

Six of the dead were supporters of Mr Morsi, his party, the Muslim Brotherhood said. Prosecutors investigating the unrest said Brotherhood members had detained 49 wounded protesters and were refusing to release them to the authorities, the state news agency said.

The Brotherhood’s spokesman, Mahmoud Ghozlan, denied this, saying all “thugs” detained by the Islamist group had been handed over to the police or the Republican Guard.

The street clashes reflected a political rift in the most populous Arab nation, where the contrasting visions of Islamists and their liberal rivals have complicated a struggle to embed democracy after 30 years of one-man rule under Mubarak.

The commander of the Republican Guard said deployment of tanks and troop carriers around the presidential palace was intended to keep the rival groups apart, not to repress them.

“The armed forces, and at the forefront of them the Republican Guard, will not be used as a tool to oppress the demonstrators,” General Mohamed Zaki said.

Hussein Abdel Ghani, spokesman for the opposition National Salvation Front, said more ­protests were planned, but not necessarily at the palace.

“Our youth are leading us today and we decided to agree to whatever they want to do,” he said.

Outside Cairo, supporters and opponents of Mr Morsi clashed in his home town of Zagazig in the Nile Delta, state TV reported.

Egypt plunged into renewed turmoil after Mr Morsi’s 22 November decree and after an Islamist-dominated ­assembly hastily approved a new constitution to go to a referendum on 15 December. Since then six of Mr Morsi’s advisers have resigned. Essam al-Amir, the director of state TV quit yesterday, as did a Christian official working for the presidency.

The Supreme Guide of the Brotherhood, to which Mr Morsi belonged before he was narrowly elected president in June, appealed for unity. Divisions among Egyptians “only serve the nation’s enemies”, Mohammed Badie said.