Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi’s supporters, background, clash with opponents, foreground, outside the presidential palace, in Cairo, Egypt, Wednesday, December 5, 2012. Wednesday’s clashes began when thousands of Islamist supporters of Morsi descended on the area around the palace where some 300 of his opponents were staging a sit-in. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)
Thousands of supporters and opponents of Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi clashed in the streets around the presidential palace Wednesday, hurling rocks and Molotov cocktails and firing birdshot at each other in the largest outbreak of violence between rival political groups since the revolution began. Seven people were killed and more than 670 injured, according to the Health Ministry, as Cairo’s affluent Heliopolis district was transformed into a scene of chaos and bloodshed.
The clashes spread outside of Cairo, erupting in Alexandria and Mahalla. The offices of the Muslim Brotherhood were set ablaze in Suez and Ismailia.
The street battles marked a major escalation in the crisis that erupted on November 22, when President Morsi, who hails from the Muslim Brotherhood, issued a constitutional declaration that granted him near absolute powers and placed him beyond the review of any court until the ratification of a new constitution.
The decree united Morsi’s fractured non-Islamist opposition and sparked some of the largest street demonstrations in Egypt since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak. Tens of thousands gathered in Tahrir Square and launched a mass sit-in to oppose Morsi’s seizure of power. Meanwhile, thousands of judges—including the leaders of Egypt’s highest appeals courts—launched a strike in protest.
Morsi and the Brotherhood responded by doubling down on a strategy to force the transition process and hastily called for a final vote by the Constituent Assembly on the draft constitution. Nearly all of the 100-member body’s non-Islamist members, including representatives of the Coptic Christian Church, had already withdrawn from the assembly.
In a marathon, seventeen-hour session broadcast on state television, assembly members—nearly all of them Islamist—passed each of the 234 articles of the constitution in near unanimity, finally ending at 7 am the next day. Critics blasted the process as reminiscent of the Mubarak era, when the regime would ram legislation through the parliament. The text itself has come under criticism for restricting certain freedoms and containing vague language that lawmakers could use to curtail rights.
The Brotherhood, allied with other Islamist groups, followed the passing of the constitution with calls for a massive rally in Tahrir on December 1 to show their support for Morsi and the draft constitution. The prospect of Brotherhood members entering Tahrir during a mass sit-in by their opponents sparked warnings of potential violence, and the Brotherhood eventually backed down, announcing they would move the gathering to Renaissance Square outside Cairo University to avoid bloodshed.
Tens of thousands turned out for the massive rally—many of them bused in from governorates across Egypt. “This constitution is the best one in Egyptian history. It ensures the freedoms of citizens without violating Shariah law, and it protects the revolution from the remnants of Mubarak’s regime,” says Gamal Mohammed Abdel Galid, a school teacher from Tanta, a town in the Nile Delta who attended the rally, and a member of the ultraconservative Salafi Nour Party.
That evening, Morsi officially received the draft constitution from the Constituent Assembly in a televised ceremony and called for a national referendum to be held on December 15. Morsi pledged that the constitution, if passed, would supplant his constitutional declaration and his near absolute powers would be rendered void, setting the stage for parliamentary elections. It remains unclear what would happen if the referendum is voted down, with no clear plan from the presidency.