Friday, December 07, 2012

Egypt’s opposition defies call for dialogue, marches on presidential palace

The Washington Post

By and , Updated: Friday, December 7, 7:30 PM

CAIRO — Thousands of protesters broke through barbed-wire barriers and clambered over tanks surrounding the presidential palace Friday night after opposition leaders rejected President Mohamed Morsi’s call for a national dialogue to bridge Egypt’s expanding political divide.
Chanting “Leave! Leave!” and other slogans against Morsi, the protesters pushed past a perimeter set up by the military’s elite Republican Guard but made no apparent attempt to force their way into the palace itself, news agencies reported. Witnesses said Republican Guard troops protecting the compound retreated behind the palace walls.
Thousands of Morsi supporters, for their part, marched Friday from Cairo’s al-Azhar mosque in a funeral procession for comrades killed in clashes this week with Morsi opponents. As many as seven people died in the violence, and Morsi’s Islamist supporters say six of them were from their side.
Opposition leaders rejected Morsi’s invitation to participate in a national dialogue on Saturday at the palace. An alliance of prominent opposition figures, calling itself the National Salvation Front, said in a statement Friday that the invitation failed to meet “the principles of real and serious negotiations” and displayed “complete disregard for the main demands” of the front. The group’s demands include the annulment of a decree that granted Morsi the power to legislate without oversight and cancellation of the president’s plans to hold a national referendum on a controversial draft constitution on Dec. 15.
Gamal Hishmet, a leader of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, said Friday night that the referendum has not been delayed.
“The referendum will not be postponed without a constitutional announcement, and the president will not agree [to do that] unless there is a dialogue between the national powers, and that is the dialogue that the president called for tomorrow,” Hishmet said.
Earlier, the head of the country’s elections committee, Ismail Hamdi, said the start of week-long early voting by Egyptians who live abroad would be postponed four days, the Associated Press reported. Hamdi said the expatriate voting on the proposed constitution, originally scheduled to start Saturday, would begin Wednesday instead.
In a televised speech Thursday night, Morsi coupled his invitation to a national dialogue with a denunciation of Wednesday night’s deadly clashes between his Islamist backers and liberal, secular and other government critics. He described the violence as the work of “infiltrators” inside the opposition who had been paid to perpetrate “thuggery” and “terrorism.”
For Morsi’s opponents, who see Egypt’s first democratically elected president as an Islamist dictator in the making, Morsi’s rhetoric was combative. They view it as fanning the flames of an increasingly polarized political crisis, now in its third week.
After the speech, anti-Morsi protesters looted and ransacked the Cairo headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood, Morsi’s political base, and a smaller outlying office. And as protesters marched through the upscale Cairo neighborhood of Heliopolis on Friday afternoon, heading toward the presidential palace, many said that Morsi’s address delivered far too little, too late.
“By the time he gave the speech, people were already hitting each other,” said Mustafa Maher, a naval academy student who marched toward the palace with thousands of others after the Friday noon prayer.
“Morsi should go,” Maher added. “He hasn’t done anything for us.”
Meanwhile, the attorney general’s office said Friday that it had opened investigations into three top opposition figures. And the Muslim Brotherhood held a rival demonstration outside Cairo’s preeminent al-Azhar mosque, where thousands gathered for the funerals of their fallen partisans and to hear a sermon by the Brotherhood’s leader and supreme guide, Mohammed Badie.
The competing rhetoric and scenes of defiance as Egypt headed into its weekend underscored the extent to which the president’s Thursday night overture failed to move the country toward a political solution.
Morsi and the Islamists have squared off against a broad liberal and secular opposition over the framework of the country’s new constitution and the balance of power nearly two years after a popular uprising forced Hosni Mubarak from power, ending three decades of his autocratic rule. Politicians and analysts say a near constant stream of protest and toxic rhetoric from both sides is cementing a dangerous ideological divide that is likely to outlive the current crisis.
In a telephone call to Morsi on Thursday, President Obama expressed “deep concern’’ about the deaths and injuries of protesters and said that “all political leaders in Egypt should make clear to their supporters that violence is unacceptable,” the White House said.
In the wake of the violence, the military’s elite Republican Guard — a discrete unit charged with protecting the palace — deployed tanks and armored vehicles around the complex and ordered protesters to remain outside the perimeter.
The relatively small show of force — seven tanks, 10 armored personnel carriers and a few dozen soldiers who set out coils of barbed wire — followed a meeting early Thursday that included Morsi; his newly appointed, young and openly Islamist defense minister, Abdul Fatah Khalil al-Sisi; Maj. Gen. Mohamed Zaki, the newly appointed head of the Republican Guard, considered a Morsi loyalist; and other top security officials within his cabinet, a spokesman said.
The Republican Guard’s move came as some protesters were calling on the military — considered heroic during the revolution that ousted Mubarak — to side with them in opposing a Nov. 22 decree by Morsi that grants him near-absolute powers until the draft constitution is adopted.
By Thursday afternoon, at least six of his advisers had resigned over the decree, and Egypt’s influential al-Azhar University, a seat of moderate Islam, was calling on Morsi to rescind it.
In his telephone call to Morsi, Obama welcomed the Egyptian president’s call for a dialogue Saturday with the opposition “but stressed that such a dialogue should occur without preconditions,” the White House said.
According to a senior administration official in Washington, Morsi’s relationship with the military seems good. “We have not seen any cracks,” said the official, who was not authorized to speak on the record.

Ingy Hassieb and Sharaf al-Hourani in Cairo and Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.


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