Egypt has descended into faction-fighting in the streets that left some 5 dead and 450 wounded on Wednesday, as President Muhammad Morsi prepared to make a major address to the nation on Thursday. Violence has broken out not just in Cairo itself but also in provincial cities such as Suez, Port Said, Ismailiya, Zaqaziq and Alexandria. Not since the infamous Day of the Camel during the February 2011 demonstrations has Egypt seen this much widespread political violence in a single day.
No one can understand why Morsi has been silent through the crisis he provoked on Saturday, when he announced that he would put a hastily-completed and fundamentalist-tinged constitution to a national referendum on December 15, which many observers complained does not allow time for a national debate on the some 25 articles that liberals view as dangerous to civil liberties.
After massive demonstrations staged around the country on Tuesday by liberals, leftists and centrists that involved millions of Egyptians, on Wednesday the Muslim Brotherhood struck back. At the Ittihadiya presidential palace in Heliopolis, the small group of remaining protesters had set up tents and painted anti-Morsi grafitti on the walls of the palace. Wednesday afternoon, a huge crowd of Muslim Brothers came to the presidential palace and attacked the left-liberals with iron bars, sticks, knives molotov cocktails, stones, and in some cases live fire. The secularists threw stones and molotov cocktails back, but they were overwhelmed and pushed from the square into side streets, their tents destroyed. The fighting continued into the wee hours of the morning, when the state security forces showed up. By Thursday morning, the army had stationed tanks in front of the presidential palace.
Muslim Brotherhood big businessman and political leader Khairat Shater was allegedly the one who ordered the violent attack on the leftist protesters at the presidential palace. Certainly, someone high in the Brotherhood decided to raise the cost of protesting by committing Brotherhood cadres as street fighters.
In Ismailia, angry crowds burned the HQ of the Muslim Brotherhood. In Suez, leftist, liberal and centrist crowds fought with the Muslim Brotherhood in the streets, then the anti-Brotherhood forces set fire to the HQ of the Freedom and Justice Party, the civil arm of the Brotherhood. Its interior was completely burned out.
In Port Said, there was another big anti-Morsi demonstration, and there the Brotherhood was forced to remain in hiding. On Tuesday, leftists said, members of the Brotherhood had used firearms against the people there. On Wednesday the people pushed back, and chanted against this resort to arms. Crowds shouted “Fall, fall the regime of the Supreme Guide” (of the Brotherhood). They chanted against “the Brotherhood Pharaoh.” Many Egyptians believe that President Morsi is a front man for the secretive and cult-like leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood. They also called for the abrogation of the draft constitution. In Egyptian port cities, the longshoremen’s and other unions are often left-leaning and secular-minded. Organizations like April 6, the Revolutionary Socialists, the Free Egyptians, and other leftist groups appear to have done a lot of the organizing of these demonstrations.
In Zaqaziq in the Delta, home of President Morsi, crowds shouted against the proposed constitution and attacked the housing cooperative and the HQ of the Freedom and Justice Party with molotov cocktails, as well as menacing Morsi’s own house. They were angry with him about the violence against protesters in front of the presidential palace in Cairo. Five activists were arrested and the local head of the Brotherhood’s FJP says he will press charges for the molotov cocktails.
On Wednesday there were dueling demonstrations in two different parts of the large Mediterranean port city of Alexandria. The Muslim Brotherhood rallied in front of the Sayyid Ibrahim Mosque on behalf of Morsi, chanting “The People want the Law of God,” and “All prerogatives to the president!” Hundreds of leftists marched at the Sidi Gaber Station Square. Security officers are alleged to have declined to provide protection to the FJP and Brotherhood HQs in the city. A Muslim Brotherhood leader was beaten up at Sidi Gaber.
Egypt is so divided, with political factions now rumbling in the streets, that it could be on the verge of a descent into major instability if Morsi remains unwilling to offer his critics any sort of compromise.