Egyptian secular and Islamist protesters battled in Cairo after Vice-President Mahmoud Mekki invited the opposition to talks over a controversial draft constitution that has sparked a week of demonstrations.
Mekki’s remarks, aired live yesterday on state television, came as members of the Muslim Brotherhood rallied near the palace in support of Mohamed Mursi in response to protests a day earlier by tens of thousands of opponents of the Islamist president. Groups of rival protesters fought and threw rocks and Molotov cocktails as clashes near the presidential compound in the capital turned deadly.
Egypt has been locked in a cycle of demonstrations and counter-rallies since Mursi issued a decree on Nov. 22 expanding his powers and put the draft constitution to a referendum on Dec. 15. Activists say the charter, written by an Islamist-dominated panel, fails to protect freedoms and minority rights, and accuse Mursi and the Brotherhood of betraying the aims of last year’s uprising against Hosni Mubarak. Mekki said the presidency was open to negotiation over the document.
“In light of what’s happening now outside the presidential palace, Mursi should bear full responsibility for protecting peaceful demonstrations if he wants to preserve what’s left of his legitimacy,” said Mohamed ElBaradei, an opposition leader and Nobel laureate. Mursi’s opponents will use all legitimate means to scrap the charter and that a general strike may be a possibility, ElBaradei said at a news conference yesterday.
Five people were killed during clashes around the presidential palace, the state-run Middle East News Agency reported. At least 350 were injured, Al Jazeera television reported, citing the country’s health ministry.
Last night, roads near the presidential compound were blocked by barricades and its walls were covered with graffiti, including pictures of Mursi. One scrawl on the wall read: “Leave, you donkey.” Brotherhood supporters began erasing the messages with beige paint before fighting broke out.
Protesters in Ismailia and Suez set the local headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood on fire, MENA reported, citing security forces. Subhi Saleh, a leader in the Muslim Brotherhood and a member of the constitutional committee, was injured in an attack by anti- Mursi protesters in Alexandria, MENA reported
“It’s time for them to reconsider and to see the polarization and divisions on the Egyptian streets,” ElBaradei said yesterday. “This is already dragging us to violence and could drag us to what’s worse. The ball is in their court.”
Mursi’s edict gives the presidency and the committee that drafted the charter immunity from legal challenges. The president and his backers say the measures are necessary to steer the country toward democracy and preserve the gains from Egypt’s revolution from courts staffed by Mubarak loyalists.
The protests pose a challenge to Mursi, Egypt’s first freely elected president, as he seeks to revive a battered economy. The large turnout on the streets has reinvigorated an opposition that fractured after Mubarak’s ouster and struggled to remain relevant amid the Islamists’ rise to power.
Three advisers to Mursi quit their posts to protest the violence, the state-run Ahram Gate news website reported.
“What we are calling for are peaceful protests to support that legitimacy as chosen in elections by the Egyptian people,” said Ahmed Sobea, a media adviser for the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party. “Some are trying to make it look like there is a big group that rejects Mursi’s decrees. We are showing that there are millions who support Mursi.”
Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Qandil urged protesters to leave the palace area to help calm the situation and create an opening for national dialogue, the cabinet said yesterday in an e-mailed statement. Qandil said the police are trying to separate rival groups of demonstrators.
Muslim Brotherhood spokesman Mahmoud Ghozlan said yesterday that the group would welcome “a mutual and synchronized withdrawal” by all sides from the presidential palace site, MENA reported.
Egypt’s benchmark EGX 30 Index rose 1.6 percent yesterday amid the protests and is up 3.6 percent for the week.
An alliance of opposition groups said it was setting tomorrow as a deadline for meeting its demands, which include canceling the referendum, revoking the decree and forming a new panel to write a new charter, calling it the “Day of Great Mobilization” at Tahrir Square and at the palace, according to the state-run Middle East News Agency.
ElBaradei said yesterday the opposition was willing to negotiate with the presidency, but only after it scraps the draft charter.
Mekki said he wasn’t speaking for Mursi and that his comments were made in a personal capacity. He estimated that the president and opposition disagreed on only some 12 to 15 clauses of the constitution, which has more than 200 in total.