CAIRO -- Resignations rocked the government of President Mohamed Morsi on Thursday as tanks from the special presidential guard took up positions around his palace and the state television headquarters after a night of street fighting between his Islamist supporters and their secular opponents that left at least 6 dead and 450 wounded.
The director of state broadcasting resigned Thursday, as did Rafik Habib, a Christian who was the vice president of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party and the party's favorite example of its commitment to tolerance and pluralism. Their departures followed an announcement by Zaghoul el-Balshi, the new general secretary of the commission overseeing a planned constitutional referendum, that he was quitting. "I will not participate in a referendum that spilled Egyptian blood," he said in a television interview during the clashes late Wednesday night.
With the resignations on Thursday, nine Morsi administration officials have quit in protest in recent days. In a day of tension and uncertainty unlike any other since the revolt that overthrew Hosni Mubarak nearly two years ago, state media reported that Mr. Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood's political arm, was meeting with his top advisers and would deliver a public address in response to the clashes, but by 7 p.m., he had not done so. The top scholar of Al Azhar, the center of Sunni Muslim learning that is considered Egypt's chief moral authority, urged both sides to pull back from violence and seek "rational dialogue."
The scale of the violence around the palace has raised the first doubts about Mr. Morsi's effort to hold a public referendum on Dec. 15 to vote on a draft constitution approved by his Islamist allies over the objections of his secular opposition and the Coptic Christian Church.
About 1 p.m. Thursday, hundreds of his supporters who had camped outside his palace to defend it -- many waking up with bandaged heads from wounds sustained from volleys of rocks and the blows of makeshift clubs the previous night -- abruptly began to pull out of their encampment in unison, a development that suggested that their organizers in the Muslim Brotherhood had ordered a withdrawal. It took place just moments after several Brotherhood members camped there had vowed to stay put until the referendum, set for Dec. 15.
The Egyptian military, which seized power from Mr. Mubarak in February 2011, saying it was stepping in to protect the legitimate demands of the public, stayed silent after a statement Wednesday that it would not intervene in a dispute between political factions. The presidential guard that deployed Thursday is a separate unit that reports directly to the president.
Wednesday night's battle was the worst clash between political factions here since the days of President Gamal Abdel Nasser's military coup six decades ago, and Egyptians across the political spectrum responded with shock and dismay.
Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a popular former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood who ran for president as a liberal Islamist and has stayed on the sidelines of the escalating conflict between Mr. Morsi and his secular opponents, slammed the president and the Brotherhood for calling on their civilian supporters to defend the palace with force rather than relying the institutions of law enforcement.
"The palace is not a private property to the Muslim Brotherhood or Dr. Morsi; it belongs to us, all Egyptians," Mr. Aboul Fotouh said in a televised news conference. He was flanked by a Morsi adviser who had just resigned and by a well-known revolutionary poet who is the son of Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi, perhaps the most influential religious scholar in the Sunni Muslim world and a spiritual guru to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Wednesday night's clashes followed two weeks of sporadic violence around the country that erupted after Mr. Morsi, a former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood movement, seized temporary powers beyond the review of any court, removing the last check on his authority until ratification of the new constitution.
Mr. Morsi has said he needed the expanded powers to block a conspiracy by corrupt businessmen, Mubarak-appointed judges and opposition leaders to thwart Egypt's transition to a constitutional democracy. Some opponents, Mr. Morsi's advisers say, would sacrifice democracy to stop the Islamists from winning elections.
Mr. Morsi's secular critics have accused Mr. Morsi and the Islamists of seeking to establish a new dictatorship, in part by ramming through a rushed constitution that they say could ultimately give new power over society to Muslim scholars and Islamists groups. And each side's actions have confirmed the other's fears.
Now, the distrust and animosity between Islamists and their secular opponents have mired the outcome of Egypt's promised transition to democracy in debates about the legitimacy of the new government and its new leaders' commitment to the rule of law.
The fighting Wednesday began when the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups summoned thousands of their supporters to a rally in the support of the president outside the palace in the Heliopolis neighborhood, where a small group of his opponents had begun a sit-in the night before. The Islamists chased away the protesters, tearing down their tents and beating those who resisted, protesters said. And a few hours later, around 6 p.m., thousands of the secularists returned to try to retake the battleground.
Riot police officers initially tried to disperse the antagonists with tear gas, protesters said, but they soon retreated. A chaotic melee of thrown rocks and Molotov cocktails engulfed several blocks of Heliopolis, one of the most affluent neighborhoods in the capital, and the fighting was punctuated by the occasional blast of a shotgun. The source of the gunfire could not be determined, but secular protesters showed journalists birdshot wounds and large white pellets fired from the guns.
By Thursday morning, the soldiers of the presidential guard were nailing barbed-wire barriers into the streets surrounding the palace to hold back protesters and keep the factions apart. Rubble, broken glass and projectiles made from broken paving stones littered the streets for blocks. Car windshields were broken, and a handful of burned-out wrecks littered the streets. Splotches of white paint hid graffiti mocking Mr. Morsi that had covered the palace walls after the secular protest on Tuesday night.
A few dozen protesters stood by the barbed wire chanting slogans against Mr. Morsi and the Islamists. "The people want the fall of the supreme guide," they said, referring to the Muslim Brotherhood's spiritual leader, and the army must choose "between the revolutionaries and the killers."
On the other side of the tanks and barbed wire, hundreds of Islamists milled around an encampment of more than a dozen tents. A sound truck drove through the crowd blaring prayers and patriotic music. Words written on its back declared, "Protect Egypt -- yes to the constitution for stability!"
Many demonstrators said they were members of the Muslim Brotherhood from other provinces who had shown up to defend Egypt's democracy from a conspiracy by foreign powers, corrupt businessmen and cynical opposition leaders. Their secular opponents were thugs and street children who had been paid to fight, they insisted, arguing that democracy demanded respected for Egypt's first freely elected president.
In a token of the deep suspicions since Egypt's revolution, some maintained that Mr. Morsi could not rely on the police force to defend him and his palace because its leaders were holdovers from the old government trying to position themselves to be on the winning side of the political battle.
"We must take our freedom; it will not be given to us on a golden platter," said Mohamed Hassan Awad Rashid, 54, a schoolteacher and member of the Muslim Brotherhood from Sharqiya in the Nile Delta, who said he had arrived Wednesday and would stay until the referendum. "If we don't complete our revolution now, then we are digging our own graves."
A crowd of other supporters nodded at his determination to stay until the completion of a referendum. But about half an hour later, the order for a pullout was given, and soon after virtually all the Islamists were gone. State media reported that by 3 p.m., the presidential guard would enforce an evacuation of the area.
Mohamed ElBaradei, the former United Nations diplomat, was chosen Wednesday as coordinator for the newly unified secular opposition. He urged Mr. Morsi and his allies to "see what is happening in the Egyptian street, the division, the polarization. This is something that leads us to violence and worse."
"The ball is in his court," Mr. ElBaradei said at a news conference in which he threatened a general strike or other action to try to stop the referendum. "Bullying will not yield any results for this country.
"The people of Egypt will be gathering everywhere," he added. "We will not finish this battle for our freedom and dignity until we are victorious."
Mr. Morsi did not respond to the clashes. His party said it held Mr. ElBaradei and other secular leaders responsible for any violence.
But the Brotherhood's leaders appeared to speak for the president. The group issued its own statement defending the need for Mr. Morsi's actions to fight off "treacherous plots" against Egypt's nascent democracy.
"We are confident that the Egyptian people who made this great revolution that impressed the whole world will not abandon democracy or their revolution," the group said, "and must support the president they chose freely for the first time in history."
Mai Ayyad contributed reporting.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.