Bitter palace standoff as backers of defiant Morsi seek vengeance

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Egypt’s political crisis spiralled deeper into bitterness and recrimination yesterday as thousands of Islamist backers of the president vowed vengeance at a funeral for two men killed in bloody clashes earlier this week and crowds of his opponents marched on the palace.

The two camps in the country’s divide appeared at a deadlock after president Mohammed Morsi gave a fiery televised speech on Thursday night denouncing his opponents and refusing to call off a referendum on a draft constitution promulgated by his allies, even as he appealed for dialogue. The opposition rejected talks, saying he must first cancel the referendum and meet other demands.

With Egypt’s crisis now in its third week, anger was mounting in the streets, after the two camps clashed on Wednesday in heavy battles outside the presidential palace that left six dead and more than 700 injured.

Each side is depicting the conflict as an all-out fight for Egypt’s future. The opposition accuses Mr Morsi and his Islamist allies of turning increasingly dictatorial to force their agenda on the country and monopolise power. The Muslim Brotherhood, from which Mr Morsi hails, and other Islamists say the opposition is trying to use the streets to overturn their victories in elections over the past year.

The tone was one of a battle cry as thousands of Islamists held funeral prayers at Al-Azhar Mosque – the country’s premier Islamic institution - for two Morsi supporters killed in Wednesday’s clashes.

“Egypt is Islamic, it will not be secular, it will not be liberal,” the crowd chanted in a funeral procession filling streets around the mosque. During the funeral, thousands chanted “With blood and soul, we redeem Islam”, pumping their fists in the air. Mourners yelled that opposition leaders were “murderers”.

“We march on this path in sacrifice for the nation and our martyrs,” a leading Brotherhood figure, Mohammed el-Beltagi, told the crowd. “We will keep going even if we all become martyrs. We will avenge them or die like them.”

“Bread! Freedom! Islamic Law!” the crowd chanted, twisting the revolutionary slogan of “Bread! Freedom! Social Justice!” used by leftists and secular activists in the 2011 uprising against Mubarak.

At the same time, thousands of protesters against Mr Morsi streamed in several marches from different parts of Cairo towards his presidential palace in an upmarket neighbourhood for a third day. Many were furious over the president’s speech in which he accused “hired thugs” of attacking protesters outside the palace.

Most witnesses say the clashes began when Morsi supporters attacked a camp set up by anti-Morsi demonstrators.

At the rings of barbed wire outside the palace, protesters chanted “Leave, leave”, and “the people want the fall of the regime”.

Egypt’s military intervened on Thursday for the first time, posting tanks around the palace and stringing barbed wire.

Yesterday, Mr Morsi attended weekly Friday prayers at the Republican Guards’ mosque near the palace – after he was denounced by worshippers last week at a mosque near his home in a Cairo suburb where he often prays.

The National Salvation Front, the main opposition umbrella group, blasted Mr Morsi’s speech, saying he was “surprisingly in denial to facts that millions of people in Egypt and around the world have seen”.

Rival protests also took place in cities around the country, including in the cities of Alexandria on the Mediterranean coast and Luxor in the south.

The two sides pelted each other with stones outside the headquarters of the Brotherhood office in Nile Delta city of Kom Hamada, in the province of Beheira.

In the Delta industrial city of Mahallah, protesters cut railroads stopping trains and announcing a sit-in until cancellation of Mr Morsi’s decrees and the referendum.

In the southern city of Assiut, hundreds of protesters marched chanting “Down with the rule of the General Guide”, referring to the head of the Muslim Brotherhood.

“No Brotherhood, no Salafis, Egypt is a civic state,” they said.