CAIRO’s presidential palace was yesterday sealed off with barbed wire and armoured vehicles as protesters defied a deadline to vacate the area, pressing forward with demands that Islamist leader Mohammed Morsi should rescind decrees giving himself near-absolute power and withdraw a disputed draft constitution.
Inside the palace gates, Mr Morsi met members of his cabinet and military leaders to discuss the expanding crisis after fierce street battles in an upscale residential suburb of Cairo killed five people and left more than 600 injured in the worst outbreak of violence between the two sides since the Islamist leader’s election.
The intensity of Wednesday’s overnight violence, with Mr Morsi’s Islamist backers and largely secular protesters lobbing firebombs and rocks at each other, raised the spectre that the two-week-old crisis that has left the country sharply divided would grow more polarised and violent.
The army’s Republican Guard, an elite unit assigned to protect the President and his palaces, surrounded the complex and gave protesters on both sides until 3pm local time (1pm GMT) yesterday to clear the vicinity, according to an official statement, which also announced a ban on protests outside any of the nation’s presidential palaces.
But a group of several dozen anti-Morsi protesters continued to demonstrate across the street from the palace past the military’s deadline, chanting slogans against the president.
Meanwhile, members of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists supporting Mr Morsi withdrew from the area after a sit-in the previous night but called for tough action against opposition protesters.
Egypt has seen sporadic clashes throughout nearly two years of political turmoil after Hosni Mubarak’s removal in February 2011. But Wednesday’s street battles were the worst between Mr Morsi’s supporters and opponents.
The clashes began after an implicit call by the Muslim Brotherhood and its political party, to which the president belongs, for their members to go to the palace and stage a sit-in that would remove anti-Morsi protesters who were camped out there.
Unlike Mubarak, Mr Morsi was elected in June after a narrow victory in Egypt’s first free presidential elections.
However many activists who supported him have jumped to the opposition after he issued decrees on November 22 that put him above oversight.
A draft charter was later rushed through by his Islamist allies despite a walkout by Christian and liberal factions.
Compounding Mr Morsi’s woes, four of his advisers resigned on Wednesday, joining two other members of his 17-member advisory panel who have abandoned him since the latest crisis began.
The violence began when the Brotherhood called on its members to head to the presidential palace against what a statement termed as attempts by the opposition to impose its will by force.
In response, thousands descended on the area on Wednesday, chasing away about 300 opposition protesters who had been staging a peaceful sit-in. Clashes later ensued with the two sides using rocks, sticks and firebombs.
State television quoted the Health Ministry as saying that five people were killed and 644 injured.
A journalist for the independent Al-Fagr newspaper was in a critical condition yesterday after being shot in the head with a rubber bullet, according to colleague.
“We raise Egypt’s flag but they raise the Brotherhood flag. This is the difference,” protester Magdi Farag said as he held the tri-coloured national flag stained with blood from his friend’s injury in the clashes the night before.
“We will not leave until he leaves,” Mr Farag said about the president.