Opponents and supporters of Mohammed Morsi have clashed across Egypt, the day after the president granted himself sweeping new powers that critics fear can allow him to be a virtual dictator. At least 15 were reported injured.
In a sign of deepening polarization, state TV reported that protesters burned offices of the political arm of Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood group on several cities on the Suez Canal east of Cairo and in the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria, while Islamists engaged with fistfights with Morsi opponents in southern Egypt.
Tens of thousands of pro-democracy activists meanwhile converged on Cairo's Tahrir Square, angered at the decisions by Morsi. The decrees include exempting himself from judicial review, as well as a panel writing the new constitution and the upper house of parliament, and the power to enact any other measure he deemed necessary to deal with a "threat" to Egypt's "revolution."
Morsi's powers are supposed to be temporary — until a new constitution and new parliamentary elections take place — and feed on the belief among the public that judicial officials appointed under ousted President Hosni Mubarak are blocking the reform of state institutions.
The president's supporters cast the decrees as the next logical step to consolidate the gains of the 2011 uprising that overthrew Mubarak, and the only way to break through the political deadlock preventing the adoption of a new constitution. Courts dissolved both parliament and an earlier constitutional assembly earlier this year, and were weighing cases on whether to dissolve it again.
"We are going ahead and no one can stop our march. We are not a fragile nation and I am carrying my duty for the sake of God and my country. I take my decisions after consulting with everybody," the president said, according to the website of the state-owned Akhbar al-Youm newspaper.
But many veteran activists who organized that uprising say Morsi's decree puts him in the same category as Mubarak, who argued his autocratic powers were necessary only to shepherd Egypt to a new democratic future.
Mohamed El-Baradei, former head of the UN's nuclear agency, called Morsi a "new pharaoh." The president's one-time ally, the April 6 movement, warned that the polarization could bring a "civil war." One of Morsi's aides, Coptic Christian thinker Samer Marqous, resigned to protest the "undemocratic" decree.
"This is a crime against Egypt and a declaration of the end of January revolution to serve the interest of the Muslim Brotherhood dictatorship," wrote Ibrahim Eissa, chief editor of daily Al-Tahrir. "The revolution is over and the new dictator has killed her. His next step is to throw Egypt in prison."
The state media described Morsi's decree as a "corrective revolution," and the official radio station aired phone calls from listeners praising the president's decree. In contrast, the privately owned Al-Masry al-Youm newspaper ran a front page headline reading, "Morsi, a dictator, temporarily."
Chants of "Leave, leave" rang across Tahrir Square, echoing the calls from when it was the epicenter of last year's uprising. "Morsi is Mubarak ... Revolution everywhere."
Across town, in front of the presidential palace, Muslim Brotherhood supporters and other Islamists changed "the people support the president's decree" and pumped their fists in the air.
"God will humiliate those who are attacking our president, Mohammed Morsi," said ultraconservative cleric Mohammed Abdel-Maksoud. "Whoever insults the sultan, God humiliates him," he added.
Outside the capital, the rival groups clashed.
Thousands from the two camps threw stones and chunks of marble at each other outside a mosque in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria after Friday Muslim prayers. Anti-Morsi protesters threw stones and firecrackers at supporters of the Brotherhood, who used prayer rugs to shield themselves.
The anti-Morsi protesters stormed a Brotherhood office in front of the mosque. At least 15 people were hurt in the clash, medical officials said.
State TV says Morsi opponents set fire to his party's offices in the Suez Canal cities of Suez, Port Said and Ismailia.
In the southern city of Assiut, ultraconservative Islamists of the Salafi tend and former Jihadists outnumbered liberal and leftists, such as the April 6 youth groups. The two sides exchanged insults and briefly scuffled with firsts and stones.
The rocky post-Mubarak transition, now in its second year, has seen tensions rising between Islamists and their partners in the uprising, liberals, leftists, and other youth groups.
Since Mubarak's departure, Islamists have dominated elections for parliament and president, while the young, mostly secular liberal activists have performed comparatively poorly.
They have since complained of being marginalized in the drafting of the constitution and their frustration has spilled over several times. Rallies this week in Cairo marking the anniversary of bloody 2011 protests against Egypt's then-military rulers turned violent, with demonstrators throwing rocks and firebombs and security forces firing birdshot and tear gas.
Both sides are frustrated with the inability of Egypt's prosecutors, mostly Mubarak holdovers, to successfully convict police and others — including the ousted president himself — for the killings of protesters during the 2011 uprising.
In a gesture aimed at the youth groups, Morsi's decrees included the retrial of Mubarak and top aides on charges of killing protesters, and the creation of a new "protection of the revolution" judicial body to swiftly carry them out.
He did not order retrials for lower level police acquitted in the killings, seen by his critics as a move to retain the support of the police.
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