Egyptian Islamists, opponents clash ahead of vote

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ALEXANDRIA, Egypt (AP) — Thousands of Islamists clashed with their opponents on Friday in Egypt’s second largest city, Alexandria, a day before the second leg of voting on a proposed Islamist-backed constitution that has polarized the nation.

Meanwhile, the country’s Islamist President Mohammed Morsi made a last-minute move to tighten his grip on power by appointing 90 members to parliament’s upper house, a body set to wield temporary lawmaking powers if the constitution is approved by referendum.

In Alexandria, on the Mediterranean coast, riot police swung batons and fired volleys of tear gas to separate stone-throwing Muslim Brotherhood members and ultraconservative Salafis on one side, and youthful protesters on the other. The clashes started when the two groups met just after Friday afternoon prayers at the city’s main mosque near the coastal road.

Witnesses say youth set fire to four vehicles — two buses and two cars — belonging to Islamists, sending thick black smoke through the upscale city center. The demonstrators, some of whom carried black Islamic battle flags, withdrew under a heavy cloud of tear gas some two hours after the clashes began. Fighting continued into dusk along the corniche, near the Medical School and famed Alexandria Library.

At least 42 people were treated for injuries, with some rushed to the hospital, a city health official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief reporters.

It was unclear who started the fight. Islamists had called for a big rally outside the Qaed Ibrahim mosque, and some 20 liberal political parties had said they would not hold a rival gathering to avoid clashes.

Security forces had cordoned off streets leading to the mosque as throngs of Salafi Islamists, most wearing the long beards favored by the movement, gathered for what they called “the million-man rally to defend clerics and mosques.” Some chanted “God is Great,” and warned opponents: “with blood and soul, we redeem Islam.”

The rally was called in response to violence last week, when a well-known Alexandrian Salafi cleric, Sheik Ahmed el-Mahalawi, was trapped inside a mosque for 12 hours while his supporters battled rock-throwing opponents outside with swords and firebombs.

El-Mahalawi, 87, had stirred anger with a sermon in which he denounced opponents of the Islamist-friendly draft charter as “followers of heretics.” He denied that in a sermon on Friday, accusing the media of spreading “lies,” and claiming that last week’s clashes were meant to prevent voting on the constitutional referendum.

The final round of voting on the disputed charter is to be completed Saturday. Critics charge that the Islamist-dominated body that wrote the draft document did not represent all Egyptians. Liberal and Christian members quit the assembly to protest clauses and articles they say were rammed through by hardline members aiming to create a religious state.

The opposition National Salvation Front reiterated its call on Friday for voters to oppose the document, and one of the group’s leaders, Mohamed ElBaradei, urged Morsi to suspend the referendum and form a new constituent assembly.

“If this constitution passed, there will be no stability,” said Baradei, a Nobel Laureate and Egypt’s leading pro-democracy advocate.

With election authorities, army and police preparing for Saturday’s voting however, ElBaradei’s televised message looked unlikely to shift Morsi’s position.

The first round of voting was held in 10 of Egypt’s 27 provinces last Saturday, including the biggest cities — Cairo and Alexandria. Turnout was low, around 32 percent, and unofficial results showed around 56 percent of voters cast a “yes” vote in support of the constitution. Rights groups and the opposition immediately filed complaints alleging irregularities.

Controversy surrounding proposed constitution has in the past month plunged Egypt into its worst turmoil since the February 2011 ouster of Hosni Mubarak, the longtime authoritarian and secular-minded ruler.

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