Five people were killed and 450 injured on Wednesday night in Cairo as Islamist backers of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi clashed with the opposition outside the presidential palace. The government deployed tanks on Thursday to keep the peace between the two sides, but the rift is wider than ever.
As the country's political crisis wears on, Egypt is plunging into chaos sparked by hate and violence. Late into Wednesday night, followers of President Mohammed Morsi battled on the streets of Cairo with opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood leader. For hours, the two camps fought in front of the presidential palace, with both sides throwing stones and Molotov cocktails. Those who fell into the wrong hands were savagely beaten and several cars were set on fire.
At least five people were killed in the overnight clashes and some 450 were injured. On Thursday morning, the Egyptian army was deployed in front of the presidential palace, including several tanks and other military vehicles, to protect the compound. German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle on Thursday morning said, "I appeal to all sides to yield to prudence and reason," adding that Berlin was "observing the situation with concern."
The orgy of violence in Egypt on Wednesday night was the worst since the days of fighting that led to the fall of former President Hosni Mubarak in the spring of 2011. And it was a night that demonstrated just how difficult it will be to find a peaceful solution to the political crisis that has become increasingly embittered in recent weeks. Even as the street battle was unfolding, each side began blaming the other for the rapid escalation of violence. The power struggle between Morsi's followers and the opposition now threatens to develop into a prolonged conflict.
Morsi and the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood appear determined to tighten their already firm grip on power in the country, no matter what methods might be necessary or the consequences they might produce. Essam El-Eryan, deputy head of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the political arm of the Brotherhood, even claimed following Wednesday night's violence in the Cairo district of Heliopolis that the Islamists had courageously fought "the last battle in the fight against the counterrevolutionaries." He said that Morsi's opponents refused to accept the "rule of the majority."
An Offer of Dialogue?
Given such rhetoric, the government's parallel offer to open a dialogue with the opposition over the controversial draft constitution, which would cement several tenants of Islamism into law, seemed farcical. In Cairo, rumors are already circulating that Morsi plans to introduce so-called revolutionary courts in order to sideline political opponents as quickly as possible. Initial charges have already been filed, such as those against opposition leader Mohammed ElBaradei.
Still, three Morsi advisors resigned their posts in protest of the new wave of violence. One of them, Seif Abdel Fatah, announced the move in a live interview with Al-Jazeera, saying with tears in his eyes that the country's entire elite was self-serving and cared little about the interest of the people.
The violence on the streets of Cairo began at 6 p.m. local time. Leaders from both camps urged their followers via text messages, Twitter and Facebook to gather in front of the presidential palace. The night before, tens of thousands of opposition activists had collected there to protest decrees issued by Morsi that grant him near absolute power as well as against the draft constitution. Following a brief altercation with the police, the Morsi opponents even advanced to the gate of the compound.
On Wednesday afternoon, the deeply conservative Muslim Brotherhood urged its followers to clear a small clutch of tents erected by the opposition on one side of the palace to show their support for the head of state. The Islamists believe that the opposition has insulted the president, who left the palace at the beginning of the demonstrations on Tuesday. A Brotherhood spokesman said on television that "the time for battle" had come. Shortly thereafter, the opposition likewise called on their followers to return to the palace. A clash was unavoidable.
And it was one that showed the deep hatred dividing Morsi's followers from the opposition. Encouraged by Muslim Brotherhood leaders, thousands of Islamists headed for the palace, destroyed the opposition camp and violently beat those they found there. They then erected street barricades, collected rocks and painted over graffiti critical of Morsi on the palace walls.
It only took an hour before a large group of opposition activists likewise reached the palace. But this time they were not the students who once triggered the revolution. Rather, it was a mob of angry youth armed with wooden clubs. Many of them wore gasmasks and motorcycle helmets as they advanced toward the barricades.
Chaos ensued. Thousands of people chased each other through the streets lined with shops. They swung at each other with rods, belts and anything else they could get their hands on. Before long, the first Molotov cocktails flew through the air and the battle was on in earnest. Initially, there was no police presence at all. Instead of attempting to keep the two groups separated, the riot police held back at first. They only swung into action once it was already too late to prevent the worst of the violence.
The unrest this week is comparable to that seen in the spring of 2011 as opposition activists and followers of Mubarak battled in the streets at the height of the revolution. Then, it was Tahrir Square in the heart of Cairo that provided the stage for the at times brutal clashes, which were some of the bleakest moments in the effort to depose the autocrat Mubarak.
Wednesday night in Cairo provided the latest bloody sequel. It seems likely that it won't be the last.
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