Cairo calm after clashes kill at least five

Overnight clashes in Cairo between supporters and opponents of Egypt’s Islamist leader killed at least five people, the Interior Ministry said Thursday, as the nation further descended into political turmoil over the constitution drafted by President Mohammed Morsi’s allies.

Report by CBS News Online

The street battles outside the presidential palace in the city’s Heliopolis district were the worst violence since Egypt’s latest political turmoil erupted on Nov. 22, when Morsi assumed near absolute powers.

Tanks and armored personnel carriers were seen Thursday on Cairo streets. The Reuters news agency reports witnesses say at least four tanks were deployed outside the palace, along with three troop carriers.

The clashes also were the first time supporters of rival camps have fought each other since last year’s uprising that toppled authoritarian ruler Hosni Mubarak.

An early Thursday report by state television quoted the Health Ministry as saying five people were killed and 446 people were injured as angry mobs battled each other with firebombs, rocks and sticks outside the presidential complex long into the night.

The fighting erupted late Wednesday afternoon, when thousands of Morsi’s Islamist supporters descended on an area near the presidential palace where some 300 of his opponents were staging a sit-in. The Islamists, members of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, chased the protesters away from their base outside the palace’s main gate and tore down their tents.

After a brief lull, hundreds of Morsi opponents arrived and began throwing firebombs at the president’s backers, who responded with rocks. The clashes continued well after nightfall and spread from the immediate vicinity of the palace to residential streets nearby.

The deployment of hundreds of riot police did not stop the fighting. The police later fired tear gas to disperse Morsi’s opponents. Volunteers ferried the wounded on motorcycles to waiting ambulances, which rushed them to hospitals.

By dawn, the violence had calmed. But both sides appeared to be digging in for a long struggle, with the opposition vowing more protests later Thursday and rejecting any dialogue unless the charter is rescinded.

Morsi, for his part, seemed to be pressing relentlessly forward with plans for a Dec. 15 constitutional referendum to pass the new constitution.

The large scale and intensity of the fighting marked a milestone in Egypt’s rapidly entrenched schism, pitting the Brotherhood and ultra-conservative Islamists in one camp against liberals, leftists and Christians in the other.

The violence spread to other parts of the country on Wednesday. Anti-Morsi protesters stormed and set ablaze the Brotherhood offices in Suez and Ismailia, east of Cairo, and there were clashes in the industrial city of Mahallah and the province of Menoufiyah in the Nile Delta north of the capital.

Compounding Morsi’s woes, four of his advisers resigned Wednesday, joining two other members of his 17-member advisory panel who have abandoned him since the crisis began.

The opposition is demanding that Morsi rescind the decrees giving him nearly unrestricted powers and shelve the controversial draft constitution, which the president’s Islamist allies rushed through last week in a marathon, all-night session shown live on state TV.

Mohamed ElBaradei, a leading opposition advocate of reform and democracy, said Morsi’s rule was “no different” from that of Mubarak.

Vice President Mahmoud Mekki called for a dialogue between the president and the opposition to reach a “consensus” on the disputed articles of the constitution and put their agreement in a document that would be discussed by the next parliament. But he said the referendum must go ahead and that he was making his “initiative” in a personal capacity, not on behalf of Morsi. He put the number of clauses in disputes at 15, out of a total of 234.

Speaking to CBS News, ElBaradei said the dialogue offer is “a ploy. We will continue to push until we get a proper mechanism to develop a democratic constitution and to make sure that the goals of this uprising has been fulfilled which is justice, freedom and social equality.”

He added they are going to try to stop the referendum because “we believe that this referendum is null and void. It has no legitimacy.”

The charter has been criticized for not protecting the rights of women and minority groups, and many journalists see it as restricting freedom of expression. Critics also say it empowers Islamic religious clerics by giving them a say over legislation, while some articles were seen as tailored to get rid of the Islamists’ enemies.

If the referendum goes ahead as scheduled and the draft constitution is adopted, elections for parliament’s lawmaking lower chamber would be held in February.