- Associated Press - Thursday, December 6, 2012

CAIRO — The Egyptian army sealed off the presidential palace with barbed wire and armored vehicles Thursday as protesters defied a deadline to vacate the area, pressing forward with demands that Islamist leader Mohammed Morsi rescind decrees giving himself near-absolute power and withdraw a disputed draft constitution.

Inside the palace gates, Morsi met with members of his Cabinet and military leaders to discuss the expanding crisis after fierce street battles in an upscale residential suburb of Cairo killed five people and left more than 600 injured in the worst outbreak of violence between the two sides since the Islamist leader’s election.

The intensity of the overnight violence, with Morsi’s Islamist backers and largely secular protesters lobbing firebombs and rocks at each other, raised the specter that the 2-week-old crisis that has left the country sharply divided would grow more polarized and violent.

The army’s Republican Guard, an elite unit assigned to protect the president and his palaces, surrounded the complex and gave protesters on both sides until 3 p.m. (1300 GMT, 8 a.m. EDT) to clear the vicinity, according to an official statement. The statement also announced a ban on protests outside any of the nation’s presidential palaces.

But a group of several dozen anti-Morsi protesters continued to demonstrate across the street from the palace past the military’s deadline Thursday afternoon, chanting slogans against the president. And organizers called for a larger evening rally. Meanwhile, members of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists supporting Morsi withdrew from the area after an overnight sit-in.

Inside the palace gates, Morsi held crisis meetings Thursday with Cabinet members and military leaders, including the defense minister, according to a presidential statement.

“The president discussed ways to deal with the situation regarding the political, security and legal landscapes so that Egypt can achieve stability and preserve the gains of the revolution,” the statement said.

Egypt has seen sporadic clashes throughout nearly two years of political turmoil after Hosni Mubarak’s ouster in February 2011. But Wednesday’s street battles were the worst between Morsi’s supporters and opponents.

The clashes began after an implicit call by the Muslim Brotherhood and its political party, to which the president belongs, for their members to go to the palace and stage a sit-in that would remove anti-Morsi protesters who were camped out there.

Unlike Mubarak, Morsi was elected in June after a narrow victory in Egypt’s first free presidential elections, but many activists who supported him have jumped to the opposition after he issued decrees on Nov. 22 that put him above oversight and a draft charter was later rushed through by his Islamist allies despite a walkout by Christian and liberal factions.

Compounding Morsi’s woes, four of his advisers resigned Wednesday, joining two other members of his 17-member advisory panel who have abandoned him since the crisis began.

Six tanks and two armored vehicles belonging to the Republican Guard, an elite unit tasked with protecting the president and his palaces, were stationed Thursday morning at roads leading to the palace in the upscale Cairo district of Heliopolis. The guard’s commander, Maj. Gen. Mohammed Zaki, sought to assure Egyptians that his forces were not taking sides.

“They will not be a tool to crush protesters and no force will be used against Egyptians,” he said in comments carried by the official MENA news agency.

The situation was calm Thursday morning. Thousands of Morsi supporters had camped outside the palace after driving away opposition activists who had been staging a sit-in there, prompting fierce street battles that spread to upscale residential areas. The Brotherhood, which had erected metal barricades and manned checkpoints with rocks and empty glass bottles on hand overnight, withdrew from the area by Thursday afternoon.

“I don’t want Morsi to back down,” said Khaled Omar, a Brotherhood supporter who had camped out. “We are not defending him. We are defending Islam, which is what people want.”

Other Brotherhood supporters outside the palace accused opposition protesters of being Mubarak loyalists or foot soldiers in a coup attempt.

“They want to take over power in a coup. They are conspiring against Morsi and we want him to crack down on them,” said one, Ezzedin Khoudir. “There must be arrests.”

The violence began when the Brotherhood called on its members to head to the presidential palace against what a statement termed as attempts by the opposition to impose its will by force. In response, thousands descended on the area Wednesday, chasing away some 300 opposition protesters who had been staging a peaceful sit-in outside the palace’s main gate since the night before. Clashes later ensued with the two sides using rocks, sticks and firebombs.

State television quoted the Health Ministry as saying Thursday that five people were killed and 644 injured by beatings, gunshot wounds and tear gas inhalation.

A journalist for the independent daily Al-Fagr newspaper was in critical condition Thursday after being shot in the head with a rubber bullet, according to a staff member who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity in exchange for releasing the information ahead of a formal announcement. The newspaper said it did not know who fired the rubber bullet.

“We raise Egypt’s flag but they raise the Brotherhood flag. This is the difference,” protester Magdi Farag said as he held the tri-colored national flag stained with blood from his friend’s injury in the clashes the night before.

“We will not leave until he leaves,” Farag said about the president.

Morsi, meanwhile, remains determined to press forward with plans for a Dec. 15 constitutional referendum to pass the new charter. The opposition, for its part, is refusing dialogue unless Morsi rescinds the decrees giving him near unrestricted powers and shelves the controversial draft constitution, which the president’s Islamist allies rushed through last week in a marathon, all-night session shown live on state TV.

Mohamed ElBaradei, a leading opposition reform advocate, said late Wednesday that Morsi’s rule was “no different” than Mubarak‘s.

“In fact, it is perhaps even worse,” the Nobel Peace Prize laureate told a news conference after he accused the president’s supporters of a “vicious and deliberate” attack on peaceful demonstrators outside the palace.

Wednesday’s violence also spread to other cities, with at least two Brotherhood offices set ablaze outside Cairo.

Associated Press writer Aya Batrawy contributed to this report.