Fierce clashes rage in Egypt
CAIRO -- Supporters and opponents of President Mohammed Morsi clashed Friday in the worst violence since he took office, while he defended a decision to give himself near-absolute power to root out what he called "weevils eating away at the nation of Egypt."
Mr. Morsi's edicts, issued Thursday, have turned months of growing polarization into an open battle between his Muslim Brotherhood and liberals who fear a new dictatorship. Some in the opposition, which has been divided and weakened, were now speaking of a sustained street campaign against the man who nearly five months ago became Egypt's first freely elected president.
The unrest also underscored the struggle over the direction of Egypt's turbulent passage nearly two years after a popular uprising toppled Hosni Mubarak's authoritarian regime. Liberals and secular Egyptians accuse the Brotherhood of monopolizing power, dominating the drafting of a new constitution and failing to tackle the nation's chronic economic and security problems.
"I don't like, want or need to resort to exceptional measures, but I will if I see that my people, nation and the revolution of Egypt are in danger," Mr. Morsi told thousands of his chanting supporters outside the presidential palace in Cairo.
But even before he spoke, thousands from each camp demonstrated in major cities, and violence broke out in several places, leaving at least 100 wounded, according to security officials.
Security forces pumped volleys of tear gas at thousands of pro-democracy protesters clashing with riot police on streets several blocks from Cairo's Tahrir Square, one of the landmarks of the Arab Spring, and in front of the nearby parliament building. Young protesters set fire to tree branches to counter the gas, and a residential building and police vehicle also were burned.
Tens of thousands of activists massed in Tahrir itself, denouncing Mr. Morsi. In a throwback to last year's 18-day anti-Mubarak uprising, they chanted the iconic slogan first heard in Tunisia in late 2010: "The people want to overthrow the regime." They also yelled "erhal, erhal," -- Arabic for "leave, leave."
Outside a mosque in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria, anti-Morsi crowds threw stones and firecrackers at Brotherhood backers, who used prayer rugs to protect themselves. At least 15 were injured. Protesters then stormed a nearby Brotherhood office.
State TV reported that offices of the Brotherhood's political arm were burned in the Suez Canal cities of Suez, Ismailia and Port Said, east of Cairo.
In the southern city of Assiut, ultraconservative Islamists and former jihadists outnumbered liberals and leftists in rival demonstrations. The two sides exchanged insults and scuffled briefly.
Mr. Morsi and the Brotherhood contend that the old regime's supporters are stalling progress toward democracy. They have focused on the judiciary, which many Egyptians see as too much under the sway of Mubarak-era judges and prosecutors, and which has shaken up the political process several times with rulings that have included dissolving the lower house of parliament, which the Brotherhood led.
His edicts effectively shut down the judiciary's ability to do so again. At the same time, the courts were the government's only civilian branch with a degree of independence: Mr. Morsi already holds not only executive power, but also legislative authority, since there is no parliament.
His move came at a time when he was enjoying lavish praise Wednesday from U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton for brokering a cease-fire between Israel and Gaza's Hamas rulers. Ms. Clinton had been in Cairo for extensive talks with Mr. Morsi before the truce was announced.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement that the Morsi edicts raise "concerns" for many Egyptians and for the international community, adding that Egypt's revolution had aimed in part to prevent too much power being concentrated in one person's hands. She said the United States was urging "all Egyptians to resolve their differences over these important issues peacefully and through democratic dialogue."
Amnesty International, the London-based rights group, said Mr. Morsi's new powers "trample the rule of law and herald a new era of repression."
Morsi aide Samer Marqous, a Coptic Christian, resigned to protest the "undemocratic" decree.
"Morsi's decision means dictatorship. He creates the law, passes the law and oversees the law," said activist Manal Tibe, who was a member of the assembly writing the new constitution until she withdrew earlier this year to protest the Islamists' domination of it. "He is the state, and the state is him."
Mohamed ElBaradei, Egypt's most prominent reformer and a Nobel Peace laureate, warned that Mr. Morsi was making himself a "pharaoh" and appealed to him to withdraw the decrees "before the polarization and aggravation of the situation increases."
In his decrees, Mr. Morsi ruled that any decisions and laws he has declared or will declare are immune to appeal in the courts and cannot be overturned or halted. He also barred the judiciary from dissolving the parliament's upper house or the assembly writing the new constitution, both of which are dominated by the Brotherhood.
The edicts would be in effect until a new constitution is approved and parliamentary elections are held, which are not expected until the spring.
First Published November 24, 2012 12:00 am