Crisis in Egypt Rift Widens Between Morsi and Opposition

Thousands of protesters marched on Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi's palace on Tuesday in Cairo, forcing police to retreat after violent clashes. The opposition is celebrating the protest as a victory, but the bitter power struggle is far from over.


By in Cairo

The battle on the outskirts of Egypt's presidential palace was brief but intense. It was a few minutes before 6 p.m. in the upscale Cairo suburb of Heliopolis when the acrid smell of tear gas came wafting through the streets once again, overcoming thousands of demonstrators in front of makeshift police barricades. Panic broke out immediately, with protesters -- among them a striking number of women -- quickly running from the notorious riot police, with their threatening-looking shields and batons. The officers repeatedly fired fresh canisters of tear gas into the crowd.

"You see!" screamed one young woman. "Morsi is firing on his own people just like Mubarak did."

The situation had escalated within seconds. Demonstrators, many of them masked, had torn away street barricades at an intersection not far from the gateway to President Mohammed Morsi's palace, charging at a line of police.

Several thousand opposition protesters had begun heading toward the palace from different locations around Cairo in the afternoon. With the provocative slogan "The Last Warning," the demonstrators had wanted to once again show the strength of their resistance to the president's recent consolidation of power and voice their disapproval of the plan to vote in two weeks on a new constitution -- a document that contains a significant religious coloring. They wanted to be as close as possible to the palace, the symbol of Morsi's power.

Threat of Further Violent Protests

They accomplished the day's goal. The tear gas had barely begun to dissipate when the masses of people began pushing toward the palace again, and this time they were met with no more resistance. Within a few minutes, the police had retreated to behind the high walls of the enormous building complex, letting the demonstration run its course. Morsi himself, at least according to state television, had fled through a back exit of the building and was driven home. The crowd quickly cheered over the president's flight, although his office released a statement saying Morsi had left the palace long before, when the protest had only just begun to form behind the street blockades. But none of the protesters let that spoil the party.

What played out around the palace on Tuesday once again made clear the bitter struggle for control over the future of Egypt. The huge numbers of people flocking to the demonstration illustrated how the diverse opposition -- which includes revolutionaries, politicians and a growing number of influential judges and journalists -- is not ready to give up. In the days running up to the Dec. 15 referendum on Morsi's constitution, hastily approved by his allies in parliament, there hangs a threat of further violent confrontations.

Morsi Undeterred by Protests

No one dares predict with certainty how the situation in Egypt will develop in the coming weeks. The two sides appear more irreconcilable than ever, and the images of violent protests and the storming of the palace are not likely to calm the situation. Morsi's opponents have already called for another big protest, saying the new constitution will lead straight to an Egyptian theocracy. They fear a state in which women's rights are limited, the media is censored and Sharia law is held up as the highest legal philosophy. The debate is so heated that some have begun a painting a grim representation of what an Egyptian theocracy might look like.

Morsi, by contrast, appears determined to put all his eggs in one basket. If the referendum produces a majority for his constitution, he could point back to this mandate from the people to justify filling the government and the state apparatus with those who are loyal to him. And there have certainly been some signals that indicate this will be the case. Morsi's spokesman said on state television on Sunday that if the president wins a majority for the constitution, he would eliminate the post of vice president -- similar to what his despotic predecessor Hosni Mubarak did.

Such a move would hand Morsi even more power than he already has.


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