CAIRO – Thousands of opponents of Egypt’s Islamist president clashed with his supporters in cities across the country Friday, burning several offices of the Muslim Brotherhood, in the most violent and widespread protests since Mohammed Morsi came to power, sparked by his move to grant himself sweeping powers.
The violence, which left 100 people injured, reflected the increasingly dangerous polarization in Egypt over what course it will take nearly two years after the fall of autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
Critics of Morsi accused him of seizing dictatorial powers a day earlier with his decrees that make him immune to judicial oversight and give him authority to take any steps against “threats to the revolution.” On Friday, 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 “harm the country.”
Clashes between his opponents and members of Morsi’s 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.
State TV reported that protesters burned offices of the Brotherhood’s political arm in the Suez Canal cities of Suez, Ismailia and Port Said, east of Cairo.
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 and in front of the nearby parliament building.
Tens of thousands of activists massed in Tahrir itself, denouncing Morsi and chanting “Morsi is Mubarak … Revolution everywhere” and “Leave, leave.” Many of them represented 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 Jan. 25, 2011.
“We are in a state of revolution. He is crazy if he thinks he can go back to one-man rule,” one protester, Sara Khalili, said of Morsi.
Frustration had been growing for months with 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 monopolize power and that he has done little to tackle mounting economic problems and continuing insecurity, much less carry out deeper reforms.
Morsi’s supporters, in turn, say he has faced constant push-back 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.
Morsi made his move Thursday, at a time when he was bolstered by U.S. and international praise over his mediating of a cease-fire ending a week of battles between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. Only a day earlier, Morsi had met with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton just before the truce was announced.
Mustafa Kamel el-Sayyed, a Cairo University political science professor, said Morsi may be confident that the U.S. won’t pressure him on his domestic moves. “The U.S. administration is happy to work with an Islamist government (that acts) in accordance with U.S. interests in the region, one of which is definitely the maintaining of the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel” and protecting Israel’s security.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Friday that Morsi’s declarations “raise concern for many Egyptians and for the international community.”
On Thursday, 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.