- - Thursday, December 6, 2012

CAIRO — Clashes between supporters and opponents of Egypt’s Islamist president erupted Wednesday outside his palace, where they attacked one another with clubs and firebombs in violence that pointed up the growing political division in the Arab world’s most populous country.

At least two confirmed deaths were reported during the protests, and more than 120 people were injured, according to the Health Ministry.

Early Wednesday, thousands of President Mohammed Morsi’s supporters and Muslim Brotherhood members approached a few hundred anti-government protesters who had set up a camp outside the palace in the Heliopolis district of Cairo.

“We’re here to cleanse the square,” they chanted. “Long live Morsi!”

Violence broke out after the two sides began attacking each other with sticks and Molotov cocktails before the opposition was forced to retreat. They soon returned, and both sides faced off, with the opposition yelling, “Down with the regime!”

The clashes followed a march Tuesday in which more than 100,000 demonstrators encircled the palace and demanded that Mr. Morsi rescind decrees granting himself almost absolute power and a draft constitution rushed through the Constituent Assembly last week.

Mr. Morsi left the palace through the back entrance when the demonstrators began pushing through the police lines.

Analysts say the show of force by the normally fractured opposition was a deep blow to the legitimacy of the government and shook the Islamists.

“[Tuesday’s march] was the greatest challenge [Morsi] has faced. It took him and the Islamists by surprise,” said Mazen Hassan, a political science lecturer at Cairo University. “It showed him that the liberals do have mobilization force.

“And the fact that the Islamists decided to respond today by also mobilizing people to take over this area means that they are going to fight back.”

Three of Morsi aides have resigned in protest of his handling of the crisis, The Associated Press reported. With two aides who had quit earlier, now five of his panel of 17 advisers have left their jobs since the problems began.

“The current regime is just as oppressive as the last one,” said Mohamed ElBaradei, a leading opposition advocate of reform and democracy, referring to former President Hosni Mubarak, who was deposed amid popular protests last year.

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

The Islamists have pushed “a vicious, deliberate” attack against peaceful demonstrators, and Mr. Morsi is “losing legitimacy,” he added.

Both sides are digging in their heels.

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