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January 26, 2013

Protests in Egypt leave seven dead

CAIRO — Violence erupted across Egypt on Friday as tens of thousands took to the streets to deliver an angry backlash against President Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood, demanding regime change on the second anniversary of the revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak. At least seven people were killed.  

Two years to the day after protesters first rose up against the autocratic ex-president, the new phase of Egypt’s upheaval was on display: the struggle between ruling Islamists and their opponents, played out against the backdrop of a worsening economy.

Rallies turned to clashes in multiple cities around Egypt, with police firing tear gas and protesters throwing stones. At least six people, including a 14-year-old boy, were killed in Suez, where protesters set ablaze a building that once housed the city’s local government. Another person died in clashes in Ismailia, another Suez Canal city east of Cairo.

At least 480 people were injured nationwide, the Health Ministry said, including five with gunshot wounds in Suez, raising the possibility of a higher death toll.

Friday’s rallies brought out at least 500,000 Morsi opponents, a small proportion of Egypt’s 85 million people, but large enough to show that antipathy toward the president and his Islamist allies is strong in a country fatigued by two years of political turmoil, surging crime and an economy in free fall. Protests — and clashes — took place in at least 12 of Egypt’s 27 provinces, including several Islamist strongholds.

“I will never leave until Morsi leaves,” declared protester Sara Mohammed as she was treated for tear gas inhalation outside the presidential palace in Cairo’s Heliopolis district. “What can possibly happen to us? Will we die? That’s fine, because then I will be with God as a martyr. Many have died before us and even if we don’t see change, future generations will.”

The opposition’s immediate goal was a show of strength to force Morsi to amend the country’s new constitution, ratified in a national referendum last month despite objections that it failed to guarantee individual freedoms.

More broadly, the protests display the extent of public anger toward the Muslim Brotherhood, which opponents accuse of acting unilaterally rather than creating a broad-based democracy.

During his six months in office, Morsi, Egypt’s first freely elected and civilian president, has faced the worst crises since Mubarak’s ouster — divisions that have left the nation scarred and in disarray. A wave of demonstrations erupted in November and December following a series of presidential decrees that temporarily gave Morsi near absolute powers, placing him above any oversight, including by the judiciary.

The Brotherhood and its Islamist allies, including the ultraconservative Salafis, have justified their hold by pointing to a string of election victories over the past year.

The opposition contends they have gone far beyond what they say is a narrow mandate — Morsi won the presidency with less than 52 percent of the vote. Brotherhood officials depict the opposition as undemocratic, using the streets to try to overturn an elected leadership.

The extent of the estrangement was evident late Thursday when, in a televised speech, Morsi denounced what he called a “counter-revolution” led by remnants of Mubarak’s regime.

Early Saturday, Morsi called on Egyptians to express their views “peacefully and freely,” without violence. Writing on his Twitter account, he offered his condolences to the families of those killed and pledged to bring the culprits to justice.

His tweets appeared to be an attempt to project an image of himself as president of all Egyptians, in the face of repeated opposition claims that he has been biased in favor of the Brotherhood, from which he hails and to which he remains loyal.

Unlike in 2012, when both sides made a show of marking Jan. 25, the Brotherhood stayed off the streets on Friday’s anniversary. The group said it was honoring the occasion with acts of public service, such as treating the sick and planting trees.

On the horizon are key elections to choose a new lower house of parliament. The opposition is hoping to leverage public anger into a substantial bloc in the legislature, but must still weld together an effective campaign in the face of the Islamists’ strength at the ballot box. Last winter, the Brotherhood and Salafis won around 75 percent of the lower house’s seats, though the body was later disbanded by court order.

Pending the election of a new lower house, Morsi gave legislative powers to parliament’s Islamist-dominated upper house, a normally toothless chamber elected by only about 7 percent of Egypt’s 50 million voters in balloting last year.

Friday’s protests re-created the tone of the 18-day uprising against Mubarak, including the same chants, this time directed against Morsi: “Erhal! Erhal!” —”Leave! Leave!” — and “The people want to topple the regime.”

Clashes erupted outside the presidential palace in Cairo when youths tried to push through a police barricade. In other cities, protesters tried to break into Brotherhood offices as well as government and security buildings.

Clashes between protesters and police outside the state TV building in central Cairo continued into the small hours of Saturday. Some of the protesters held sit-ins in major squares and streets, insisting they would not disperse until Morsi leaves office.

Standing near Tahrir Square, retiree Ahmed Afifi said he joined the protests because he was struggling to feed his five children on less than $200 a month.

“I am retired and took another job just to make ends meet,” Afifi said, his eyes filling with tears. “I am close to begging. Under Mubarak, life was hard, but at least we had security. ... The first people hit by high prices are the poor people right here.”

Tens of thousands massed in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, where the 2011 uprising began, and outside Morsi’s palace, where banners proclaimed “No to the corrupt Muslim Brotherhood government” and “Two years since the revolution, where is social justice?” Others demonstrated outside the state TV and radio building overlooking the Nile.

In the Nile Delta towns of Menouf and Shibeen el-Koum, protesters blocked railway lines, disrupting train services to and from Cairo. In Ismailia on the Suez Canal, protesters stormed the building housing the provincial government, looting some of its contents. There were also clashes outside Morsi’s home in the Nile Delta province of Sharqiyah.

The demands of the loosely knit opposition were varied. Some on the extremist fringe want Morsi to step down and the constitution rescinded. Others are calling for the document to be amended and early presidential elections held.

“There must be a constitution for all Egyptians, a constitution that every one of us sees himself in,” Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mohamed ElBaradei said in a televised message posted on his party’s website.

Democracy campaigner and best-selling novelist Alaa al-Aswany marched with ElBaradei to Tahrir. “It is impossible to impose a constitution on Egyptians ... and the revolution today will bring this constitution down,” he said.

Morsi’s opponents complain that he has kept government appointments almost entirely within the Brotherhood, installing its members to everything from governorships and chiefs of state TV and newspapers, down to preachers in state-run mosques.

Many were also angered by the constitution and the way Islamists pushed it through in an all-night session and then brought it to a swift referendum in which only a third of voters participated. The result is a document that could bring a much stricter implementation of Shariah, or Islamic law, than modern Egypt has ever seen.

Looming over the struggle between the Islamists and opposition is an economy in tatters since Mubarak’s ouster. The vital tourism sector has slumped, investment has shriveled, foreign currency reserves have tumbled, prices are on the rise and the local currency has been sliding.

More pain is likely in coming months if the government implements unpopular new austerity measures to secure a $4.8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund.

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