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
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
Wednesday night in Cairo provided the latest bloody sequel. It seems likely that it won't be the last.