CAIRO (AP) — Police fired tear gas to drive hundreds of supporters of Egypt’s ousted Islamist president from Cairo’s famed Tahrir Square on Sunday, as a panel tasked with amending a constitution adopted during his time in office convened for a second day.
The 50-member assembly revising the Islamist-tilted charter adopted under former President Mohammed Morsi has been voting clause by clause on the final draft. When that process is completed, the document will be put to a vote in a nationwide referendum to be called by Interim President Adly Mansour.
If adopted, a giant step in the road map announced by the military when it removed Mr. Morsi last summer will have been completed. The next steps are parliamentary and presidential elections by the spring or early summer of 2014, according to the political blueprint.
Morsi supporters have been staging nearly daily protests in Cairo and across much of the country to demand his reinstatement. But for hundreds of them to enter and take over Tahrir, even briefly as they did Sunday, constituted a major, albeit symbolic, propaganda coup for them. They would have attracted many more like-minded protesters had they been able to gain a solid foothold in the square.
It was the first time in more than a year that Islamists entered the central square in significant numbers. The location has been the near-exclusive domain of liberal and secular protesters since shortly after Mr. Morsi took office in June 2012 as Egypt’s first freely elected president.
Also in the background to Sunday’s events was scathing criticism of the military-backed government by a top rights group that called on authorities to immediately release five Morsi aides who have been kept at an undisclosed destination since their arrest on July 3, the day Mr. Morsi was ousted.
Police in Tahrir acted quickly and appeared to surprise protesters as authorities fired heavy tear gas to clear demonstrators from the central plaza barely minutes after demonstratoras took it over. Many of the protesters took refuge in side streets, and after the initial salvo of some two dozen canisters, armored police vans rushed to the square with sirens wailing.
Later, six army armored personnel carriers arrived. After nightfall, the protesters and police fought pitched battles on side streets off Tahrir and in the downtown area, with police firing tear gas and the protesters pelting them with rocks.
The square was the birthplace of the 2011 revolt that toppled longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak. That uprising was led by liberal and secular youth groups, whose differences with the Islamists began to surface later in 2011 over claims that Mr. Morsi’s Brotherhood and its allies were more interested in promoting their own political interests than pursuing the uprising’s goals.
Sunday’s Islamist protesters came from Cairo University, where they have been protesting the death on Thursday of an engineering student at the hands of police. Non-Islamist students also were protesting the death of the student on Sunday, but they restricted their demonstration to the area outside the university campus in the Giza district.
It was not immediately clear why police did not stop the protesters from reaching Tahrir, a 30-minute journey on foot from the university campus on the west bank of the Nile. There was no police presence outside the campus either.
Jubilant Islamist students knelt down and offered a prayer of thanks as their march drew closer to Tahrir. Once there, they chanted slogans against the military and police and flashed the four-finger sign that commemorates the death of hundreds of Morsi supporters by security forces since a military coup ousted the Islamist president on July 3.
Mr. Morsi’s supporters immediately relayed the news on social networks, calling on others to join them quickly and suggesting that camping out indefinitely in the iconic square eventually would topple the military-backed government.
Also on Sunday, Egyptian authorities ordered the release from police custody of prominent activist Ahmed Maher, founder of the revolutionary April 6 Movement, a main player in the 2011 revolt against Mr. Mubarak. Prosecutors, however, extended by 15 days the detention of another iconic figure from the 2011 uprising, Alaa Abdel-Fattah.
Both men face accusations related to intensely publicized clashes on Tuesday between police and demonstrators protesting a clause in the new draft constitution enshrining the trial in some cases of civilians before military tribunals. Both Mr. Maher and Mr. Abdel-Fattah are accused of assaulting policemen during the protest in downtown Cairo.