, , ,

Protesters gather outside the presidential palace on Saturday

Protesters gather outside the presidential palace on Saturday


Originally published in the Independent, 8 December 2012

In a sign of how bitterly entrenched Egypt’s political opposition has become, several thousand protesters marched for hours across the country’s heaving capital to express their hostility to Mohamed Morsi at the gates of his palace.

With a potentially calamitous game of brinkmanship developing between the nation’s warring factions, a huge procession descended on the president’s east Cairo headquarters to demand the suspension of a forthcoming referendum on Egypt’s new constitution.

Many of the demonstrators – who included members of all the country’s leading liberal political parties – walked for more than eight miles to reach the palace, which is situated far from the city centre and is now surrounded by tanks and troops from the presidential guard.

As a dangerous impasse develops between the president’s supporters and his opponents, some political parties, aware that the Egyptian street is their primary source of leverage, are planning to call for labour strikes if Mr Morsi refuses to back down.

They are also demanding that the president opens an independent investigation into Wednesday night’s violence, in which six people were killed and more than 600 injured.

Many have accused the Muslim Brotherhood of escalating the trouble by using firearms against their opponents, though video footage suggested that weapons were also used by anti-Morsi protesters.

“We consider the violence an act of war,” said Ahmed Khair of the liberal Free Egyptians Party. “The people are now calling for the removal of the regime.”

In a speech following the clashes, Mr Morsi invited his opponents to start a cross-party dialogue in a bid to find a way out of the crisis.

But they have refused to sit down with the president, instead demanding that he suspend next week’s referendum and rescind a recent decree in which he granted himself virtual supremacy over Egyptian politics.

After months of nursing often petty divisions, the crisis has spurred the opposition to unite under the National Salvation Front, a liberal coalition headed by Mohamed el-Baradei and other leading political figures.

Shaheer George, a member of the coalition, told The Independent: “It’s impossible for the referendum to happen now.

“The judiciary have said they will not supervise it and there is also the potential for violence. It is not just a political concern any more, but a security concern.”

But in a sign that further confrontations are inevitable, Mr Morsi used a scrappy speech late on Thursday night to rebut any suggestion that the upcoming referendum would be cancelled.

He accused some of his opponents of working for the felool, or remnants of the old regime, and said his government could not tolerate provocateurs trying to topple the system.

The president’s speech was his first public address following Wednesday night’s clashes, which started after his own supporters aggressively evicted protesters who were conducting a sit-in outside the presidential palace.

The sit-in had been launched as a result of the vehement opposition to the recently-drafted constitution, which was hurried through an Islamist-dominated assembly last month.

Liberals and Christians fear it is the blueprint of a religious state and that the Muslim Brotherhood has substituted the Mubarak tyranny for its own. The Brotherhood, on the other hand, believes they are reflecting a mandate won through the ballot box.