- - Tuesday, December 11, 2012

CAIRO — Tens of thousands of backers and foes of Egypt’s Islamist president took to the streets in competing demonstrations Tuesday, as divisions over a draft constitution that is set for a referendum Saturday spilled into violence for the second time in two weeks.

Four opposition groups held marches and converged on the presidential palace, as Muslim Brotherhood offices were attacked across the country. The Islamists held countermarches after busing in thousands to a Cairo neighborhood that is considered a stronghold for the Muslim Brotherhood.

Other supporters camped outside independent media outlets critical of President Mohammed Morsi and threatened to storm their offices.

Egypt’s military called on the Islamist-dominated government and the opposition — which includes liberals, secularists and Christians — to open a dialogue to resolve their differences.

Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, defense minister and chief of Egypt’s armed forces, asked all political groups to meet Wednesday at a Cairo military sports complex, according to a statement posted on the military’s official Facebook page.

Earlier in the day, 11 people were wounded as masked gunmen targeted anti-government activists.

Last week, six people died and hundreds were wounded in clashes between supporters of Mr. Morsi and the opposition in the worst violence in the country since its revolution in 2011.

“The country is extremely divided, and it’s under these circumstances that we are being asked to vote,” said Khaled Fahmy, history department chairman at The American University in Cairo.

“It’s not the usual division of any country that precedes a highly contested vote,” Mr. Fahmy said, adding that he is “very anxious” about the referendum. “It’s very different in the sense that what we are voting on is the rules of the game, and we are not even agreeing on that.”

A contentious vote

On Tuesday, Mr. Morsi restricted which polling stations would be open to ensure “fairness in the voting process,” a government statement said.

Meanwhile, a main association of judges announced that 90 percent of its members would not oversee the referendum, as is customary in Egypt.

Even if the referendum goes forward, it is unclear whether it will be legally binding without them, analysts said.

“Some judges will probably agree to supervise, and many others will boycott this,” said Mazen Hassan, political science lecturer at Cairo University. “If this happens, many Egyptians, especially the non-Muslims, will raise questions about the integrity of the vote.

Morsi antagonized the entire judiciary with his decisions these past couple of weeks, and many of the judges are just deciding to fight back. They think the whole process is unconstitutional, illegal and illegitimate, and that’s their way of saying no.”

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