Tensions build ahead of plebiscite: Both sides hold their ground as Egypt faces vote on constitution

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OPPOSITION protesters in Egypt broke through a barricade surrounding the presidential palace during a mass rally to demand that Islamist president Mohammed Morsi delay a referendum on a disputed new constitution due this Saturday.

Protesters pulled down concrete blocks and breached a line of Republican Guards in riot gear there to keep protesters a safe distance from the palace.

“He has divided the people in the name of his own party and has proved to be a president only representing the Brotherhood,” said Rehab Abdallah, 39, a teacher taking part in the protests against Mr Morsi.

Egypt has been in turmoil since the president issued a decree extending his powers and dismissed the state prosecutor three weeks ago sparking mass protest. Soon afterwards he ratified a draft constitution by an Islamist dominated assembly that critics claim fails to protect key human rights, ignores women and limits freedom of religious practise. Liberals also fear it could be used by Islamists to impose a conservative religious social agenda.

In a bid to defuse the tension Mr Morsi Muslim Brotherhood party annulled the decree last weekend, hoping it would calm public anger and end continued protests. But the move has failed to appease his opponents who issued renewed calls for demonstrations calling for the referendum to be delayed.

Just a mile away from the presidential palace thousands of Mr Morsi’s supporters, including Brotherhood members and Salafist Muslims, gathered near a mosque in the district of Nasr City to hold a rally in support of the draft constitution. Fears that the two sides would clash lingered yesterday after street protests descended into violence between the rival camps last week when a crowd of Brotherhood supporters attacked an anti-government sit-in outside Mr Morsi’s palace on Wednesday. At least seven died and hundreds were wounded.

A fresh round of violence on Monday night saw 11 people wounded after masked gunmen attacked opposition protesters camped in Cairo’s Tahrir Square shooting birdshot and hurling petrol bombs at them.

The opposition has accused the Brotherhood of deploying a militia to attack, interrogate and detain demonstrators last Wednesday. Testimonies have emerged from victims who were beaten by bearded men they believe were members of the Brotherhood. The party has denied any of its members were armed and said its people suffered the most casualties.

Witnesses said that nearly 140 protesters were tortured and interrogated at a makeshift detention centre set up by the Brotherhood near the palace walls.

Wael el-Gendy, a doctor from Cairo who witnessed the clashes on Wednesday saw a young activist being beaten by supporters of Mr Morsi. “I tried to beg them to stop,” he said, but they ignored him. He said he saw men “being dragged off as hostages, tied up near to the palace doors”.

Photos also circulated online of Ola Shahba, a socialist activist, who was captured and beaten by Islamists, showing her with a badly bruised face and black eye. Her attackers took off her hood and groped her. “I never imagined I would be harassed by a group affiliated with political Islam,” she said in a TV interview.

The president has called in the army to maintain security and protect state institutions ahead of Saturday’s vote.