Thousands of Egyptians rallied against President Mohamed Mursi on the second anniversary of his predecessor’s ouster, sparking clashes as security forces used water cannon and tear gas on protesters near the presidential palace.
Security forces beefed up their presence outside the presidential complex where dozens of demonstrators hurled stones in the direction of the water cannon last night, the state-run Middle East News Agency reported. Earlier, demonstrators chanting slogans against Mursi and his Muslim Brotherhood, temporarily blocked the 6th of October bridge spanning the Nile in central Cairo while hundreds joined protests in the coastal city of Alexandria, MENA said.
“We will never get tired of protesting against tyranny and dictatorship,” said 19-year-old Ibrahim Abdullah, one of hundreds who began gathering at Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the anti-Mubarak uprising. “Nothing has changed since Mursi took power. They cannot fool us by empty promises. Mursi is just a bearded version of Mubarak.” Those around him at the plaza echoed the same chant of the “People Want to Bring Down the Regime” that demonstrators used against former President Hosni Mubarak two years ago.
The protests, some calling for Mursi’s ouster, are building on weeks of unrest that have battered the president’s approval ratings. His critics say he is becoming an Islamist copy of Mubarak, seeking to advance the interests of his Muslim Brotherhood and failing to pull Egypt out of its economic woes or end police brutality.
The standoff between the president and his mostly secular opponents comes after the Egyptian pound weakened to a record low against the dollar, helping push inflation up, while the economy has been growing at the slowest pace in two decades. Tensions have boiled over into violence in recent weeks and resurfaced at protests last weekend that left one person dead.
Some opposition groups, including the Egyptian Popular Current, one of those that called for “peaceful” marches to Tahrir yesterday, said Mursi “has broken a record in lying and breaking promises.” Another group, the April 6 youth movement, organized a march from the stock exchange to Tahrir Square.
Masked youths dubbing themselves the Black Bloc said on Facebook that the protest would witness the “storming of the palace,” asking Mursi to choose between “departure or chaos.” The authenticity of the statement by the group, which is blamed by authorities for some of the recent violence, couldn’t be independently verified.
April 6 co-founder Mohamed Adel said his group’s march was peaceful and demanded retribution for protesters killed in clashes with security forces last year.
“We have a full list of peaceful measures that we can use to escalate and to exert pressure until justice is served,” Adel said by phone. April 6 took part in the anti-Mubarak uprising and later threw its weight behind Mursi’s presidential bid during a run-off against Mubarak’s last premier.
Yesterday’s protests in Cairo were peaceful until a small number of people started trying to remove barbed wire outside entrances to the palace compound and throwing stones, prompting security forces to fire tear gas and drive them away, according to an Interior Ministry statement.
Mursi’s approval rating has fallen since he became Egypt’s first democratically elected civilian leader in June, according to a poll by the research group Baseera. Conducted at the end of January, it showed 39 percent of voters would re-elect him, an 11 percentage-point drop from the previous month.
The survey showed Mursi’s approval rating slipped to 53 percent from 63 percent in December, with the lowest level of approval coming from young people and those with university degrees. The survey of 2,303 people on Jan. 30-31 cited a margin of error of about 3 percentage points.
Brotherhood officials have criticized the opposition for the repeated protests, arguing that the rallies and ensuing violence have stymied government efforts to stabilize the country. They have urged parties to focus instead on legislative elections due in the coming months.
“The opposition should shoulder the biggest share of responsibility for any violence, for calling for protests while everyone knows in advance the tensions they will inflame and the violence they will cause,” Ahmed Aref, a spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood, said in a phone interview.
“Some opposition forces use street unrest to try to seize the power that they could not win through the ballot box,” Aref said. “They’re not capable of gaining people’s votes through realistic programs and powerful candidates.”
Political bickering has prolonged talks between Egypt and the International Monetary Fund over a $4.8 billion loan. Egyptian officials say the deal is necessary to help an economy that stalled as the 2011 uprising and the turmoil that followed kept investors and tourists away.
Demonstrators on Feb. 8 threw Molotov cocktails and rocks at the presidential palace as thousands rallied against Mursi and the Muslim Brotherhood, in protests that spread to other parts of the country.
More than 50 people were killed in clashes in the week after the Jan. 25 second anniversary of the start of the uprising against Mubarak. The violence was exacerbated by death sentences handed down in connection to the country’s worst soccer stadium clash.