Islamists and opposition do battle in streets of Cairo as crisis deepens

Morsi supporters surround an opposition activist outside the presidential palace
Morsi supporters surround an opposition activist outside the presidential palace
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Supporters and opponents of Egyptian leader Mohammed Morsi pelted each other with rocks and petrol bombs and fought with sticks outside the presidential palace in Cairo last night, 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 told reporters.

The opposition is demanding that Mr Morsi rescind decrees giving him almost unrestricted powers and shelve a disputed draft constitution that the president’s Islamist allies passed hurriedly last week.

The 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.

The latest clashes began when thousands of Islamist supporters of Mr Morsi yesterday descended on the area around the palace where some 300 of his opponents were staging a sit-in. The Islamists, members of Mr Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood group, chased the protesters off their base outside the palace’s main gate and tore down their tents. After a lull in fighting, hundreds of young Morsi opponents arrived and began throwing petrol bombs at the president’s backers, who responded with rocks.

“I voted for Morsi 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. God made this revolution, not you,” she said.

By night, 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. Some of them appeared to plan staging their own sit-in.

“May God protect Egypt and its president,” read a banner. Atop, a man using a loudspeaker recited verses from the Koran.

“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.”

Activists said opposition leaders also were discussing whether to campaign for a No vote in a 15 December constitutional referendum or to call for a boycott.

Brotherhood leaders have been calling on the opposition to enter a dialogue with Mr Morsi. But the opposition contends the president must first rescind his decrees.