Thousands of opponents of Egypt’s Islamist president clashed with his supporters in cities across the country yesterday, burning several offices of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The clashes, the most violent and widespread protests since Mohammed Morsi came to power, were sparked by his move to grant himself sweeping powers.
The violence reflected the increasingly dangerous polarisation in Egypt over what course it will take nearly two years after the fall of autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
Critics of Mr Morsi accused him of seizing dictatorial powers with his decrees that make him immune to judicial oversight and give him authority to take any steps against “threats to the revolution”.
Yesterday, the president spoke before a crowd of his supporters massed in front of his palace and said his edicts were necessary to stop a “minority” that was trying to block the goals of the revolution.
“There are weevils eating away at the nation of Egypt,” he said, pointing to old regime loyalists he accused of using money to fuel instability and to members of the judiciary who work under the “umbrella” of the courts to “harm the country”.
Clashes between his opponents and members of his Muslim Brotherhood erupted in several cities. In the Mediterranean city of Alexandria, anti-Morsi crowds attacked Brotherhood backers coming out of a mosque, raining stones and firecrackers on them. The Brothers held up prayer rugs to protect themselves and the two sides pelted each other with stones and chunks of marble, leaving at least 15 injured. The protesters then stormed a nearby Brotherhood office.
In the capital Cairo, security forces pumped volleys of tear gas at thousands of pro-democracy protesters clashing with riot police on streets several blocks from Tahrir Square.
Tens of thousands of activists massed in Tahrir itself, angered at the decisions by Mr Morsi. Many of them represent Egypt’s upper-class, liberal elite, which have largely stayed out of protests in past months but were prominent in the streets during the anti-Mubarak uprising that began January 25, 2011.
Protesters chanted, “Leave, leave” and “Morsi is Mubarak ... Revolution everywhere.”
“We are in a state of revolution. He is crazy if he thinks he can go back to one-man rule,” protester Sara Khalil said of Mr Morsi. “This decision shows how insecure and weak he is because he knows there is no consensus.”
Frustration had been growing for months with Mr Morsi, Egypt’s first freely elected president who came to office in June. Critics say the Muslim Brotherhood, from which he hails, has been moving to monopolise power and that he has done little to tackle mounting economic problems and continuing insecurity, much less carry out deeper reforms.
Mr Morsi’s supporters, in turn, say he has faced constant opposition from Mubarak loyalists and from the courts, where loyalists have a strong presence. The courts have been considering a string of lawsuits demanding the dissolution of the Islamist-dominated assembly writing the next constitution. The courts already dissolved a previous version of the assembly and the Brotherhood-led lower house of parliament.
On Thursday, Mr Morsi unilaterally issued amendments to the interim constitution that made all his decisions immune to judicial review or court orders. He gave similar protection to the constitutional panel and the upper house of parliament, which is dominated by the Brotherhood and also faced possible disbanding by the courts.
Mr Morsi, who holds legislative as well as executive powers, also declared his power to take any steps necessary to prevent “threats to the revolution”, public safety or the workings of state institutions.
Mohamed ElBaradei, former head of the UN’s nuclear agency, called Morsi a “new pharaoh.” The president’s one-time ally, the April 6 movement, warned that the polarisation could bring a “civil war.”