Egypt protesters march on palace
CAIRO • Egypt's political crisis spiraled deeper into bitterness and recrimination Friday as thousands of Islamist backers of the president vowed vengeance at a funeral for men killed in bloody clashes earlier this week and large crowds of the president's opponents marched on his palace to increase pressure after he rejected their demands.
The two camps in the country's divide appeared at a deadlock, after President Mohammed Morsi gave a fiery televised speech 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 Wednesday in heavy battles outside the presidential palace that left at least six dead and more than 700 injured.
Each side is depicting the conflict as an all-out fight for Egypt's future and identity. The opposition accuses Morsi and his Islamist allies of turning increasingly dictatorial to force their agenda on the country, monopolize power and turn Egypt to a religious state. The Muslim Brotherhood, from which Morsi hails, and other Islamists say the opposition is trying to use the streets to overturn their victories in elections over the past year and stifle popular demands to implement Islamic Shariah law.
The tone was one of a battle cry as thousands of Islamists held funeral prayers Friday at Al-Azhar Mosque the country's premier Islamic institution for Morsi supporters killed in Wednesday's clashes. Seeking to rally their side, a series of speakers to the crowd portrayed the opposition as tools of the regime of ousted leader Hosni Mubarak or as decadent and un-Islamic and vowed to defend a constitution they say brings Islamic law to Egypt.
"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."
One hardline cleric speaking to the crowd denounced anti-Morsi protesters as "traitors." Another declared that they will not allow Egypt to become "a den of hash smokers."
"We march on this path in sacrifice for the nation and our martyrs," a leading Brotherhood figure, Mohammed el-Beltagy, 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 Morsi streamed in several marches from different parts of Cairo toward his presidential palace in an upscale neighborhood for a third straight day. Many were furious over the president's speech the night before in which he accused "hired thugs" of attacking protesters outside the palace Wednesday, sparking the clashes. Most witnesses say the clashes began with Morsi supporters attacked a tent camp set up by anti-Morsi protesters.
A series of video clips surfaced the days following the bloody Wednesday, showing badly bruised faces of female activists, a man putting his hand over the mouth of prominent female activist Shahanda Mekalad to try to silence her as she chanted "we are the Egyptian people," and other anti-Morsi protesters stripped naked and beaten up by the Morsi supporters. One protester was pictured with a bloodstained shirt and a bruised face.
Wednesday's battles have only fed into mistrust between Islamists in power and liberal opposition.
At the rings of barbed wire outside the palace, protesters chanted, "Leave, leave," and "the people want the fall of the regime," while trying to remove the wire. Republican Guards intervened on Thursday for the first time, posting tanks around the palace and stringing barbed wire. 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.
Morsi has been hit by a string of resignations by some of his top aides protesting the week's violence. Criticism is also growing from Egyptian journalists, including those working for state-run news organizations, over what they say are attempts by Islamists to control the media.
Ultraconservative Islamists known as Salafis rallied Friday in front of Egypt's Media City south of Cairo to protest media coverage by privately owned networks they say is being used as a propaganda machine against the faithful.
Led by lawyer-turned-cleric Hazem Salah Abu-Ismail, with his trademark long, gray beard, the Salafis raised black flags and signs reading "hypocritical media," and brought bedspreads for a prolonged sit-in. Anti-riot police were deployed to the area.
The National Salvation Front, the main opposition umbrella group, blasted Morsi's speech, saying he was "surprisingly in denial to facts that millions of people in Egypt and around the world have seen" that the violence Wednesday came from "clear and blatant instigation by leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, from which the president hails."
In a statement Friday, the group repeated its rejection of Morsi's call for dialogue saying he must first meet their demands. The opposition says Morsi must rescind decrees he issued last month giving himself sweeping powers and neutralizing the judiciary and cancel the planned Dec. 15 referendum on the draft constitution.
"After the bloodshed, we will not put our hands in the hands of those who killed new martyrs," Hamdeen Sabahi, a leading figure in the National Salvation Front, told protesters gathered Friday in central Tahrir Square.
The April 6 movement, which played a key role in sparking the uprising against Mubarak, called its supporters to gather at mosques in Cairo and the neighboring city of Giza to march to the palace. They termed Friday's march a "red card" for Morsi, a reference to a football referee sending a player off the field for a serious violation.
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 cancelation of 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. Mohammed Abdel Ellah one of the protests' coordinators said that the secular groups are organizing street campaigns against the draft constitution to get the public to vote "no" if it comes to a referendum.
"We explain the draft to the people so they won't be fooled in the poison in honey," he said.
At the same time, Muslim preachers in Assiut mosques called on worshippers to support Morsi. One cleric in the nearby village of Qussiya denounced the opposition as "those with wicked hearts" and "enemies of God's rule."
"The enemies of the president are enemies of God, Shariah and legitimacy" another preacher said, adding that it is prohibited to protest against the ruler.