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An elite Egyptian unit deployed tanks outside the presidential palace yesterday after a night of battles between Islamists and secular protesters that left five people dead and 450 wounded, spreading chaos in one of Cairo's wealthiest suburbs and leaving streets littered with debris and burned-out cars.
Angry mobs of Islamists battled the secular protesters with fists, rocks and firebombs in the first major outbreak of violence between political factions here since the revolt against the ousted president Hosni Mubarak began nearly two years ago.
With at least 12 tanks drawn up near the palace, troops from the presidential guard hammered stakes into the ground to string barbed wire to separate Islamists camping outside the palace and secular protesters chanting slogans urging the guardsmen to choose “between the revolutionaries and the killers.”
Other armoured units were sent to guard the headquarters of state television, an important symbol of government power. The severity of the clashes — and their potential political impact — became apparent when three senior advisers to Mubarak's successor, Mohamed Morsi, Egypt's first freely elected president, resigned during the clashes Wednesday, blaming him for the bloodshed. Morsi's prime minister implored both sides to pull back in order to make room for “dialogue.”
The scale of the fighting, in the affluent Heliopolis neighbourhood just outside Morsi's office in the presidential palace, raised the first doubts about Morsi's effort to hold a referendum on Dec 15 on a draft constitution approved by his Islamist allies over the objections of his secular opposition and the Coptic Christian Church.
Hundreds of Islamist supporters of Morsi spent the night outside the palace, and yesterday some awoke with head bandages covering their wounds. Many said they were members of the Muslim Brotherhood from other provinces and they vowed to stay in Cairo until the draft constitution was approved.
In a token of the deep suspicions since Egypt's revolution, some maintained that Morsi could not rely on the police force to defend him and his palace because its leaders were holdovers from the old government trying to position themselves to be on the winning side of the political battle.
In the early afternoon, the hundreds of Islamists supporting Morsi abruptly abandoned their encampment outside the presidential palace, possibly signalling a tactical shift by the president, who said through state media that he would address the nation later yesterday.
State media also reported that in midafternoon, the presidential guard, which reports directly to the president, would clear the streets around the palace. Overnight, periodic gunshots could be heard at the front lines of the fight, and secular protesters displayed birdshot wounds and pellets. But it could not be determined whether the riot police or Islamists or the opposition had fired the guns.
Many in both camps brandished makeshift clubs, and on the secular side a few carried knives. Thousands joined the battle on each side. The riot police initially tried to fight off or break up the crowds with tear gas, but by midevening on Wednesday, the security forces had all but withdrawn. They continued to try to separate the two sides across one boulevard but stayed out of the battle that raged on all around.
In a city square on the Islamist side of the battle lines, a loudspeaker on the top of a moving car blared out exhortations that the fight was about more than politics or Morsi.
Protesters reportedly set fire to Muslim Brotherhood political offices in the cities of Suez and Ismailia.
Even after two years of periodic battles between protesters and the police, Egyptians said they were shocked and alarmed by the spectacle of fellow citizens drawing blood over matters of ideology or political power.
“It is Egyptian fighting Egyptian,” said Mohamed Abu Shukka, 23, who was blocked from entering his apartment building and shaking his head.
Distrust and animosity between Islamists and their secular opponents have mired the outcome of Egypt's promised transition to democracy in debates about the legitimacy of the new government and its new leaders' commitment to the rule of law.
The clashes followed two weeks of sporadic violence around the country since Morsi, a former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood movement, seized temporary powers beyond the review of any court, removing the last check on his authority until ratification of the new constitution.
Morsi has said he needed the expanded powers to block a conspiracy by corrupt businessmen, Mubarak-appointed judges and opposition leaders to thwart Egypt's transition to a constitutional democracy. Some opponents, Morsi's advisers say, would sacrifice democracy to stop the Islamists from winning elections.