- Associated Press - Friday, February 1, 2013

CAIRO — Thousands of protesters denouncing Egypt‘s Islamist president marched on his palace in Cairo on Friday, clashing with security forces firing tear gas and water cannons in the eighth day of the country’s wave of political violence.

Protests were held in cities around the country on Friday after a call for rallies by opponents of President Mohammed Morsi. But some cracks appeared in the ranks of the opposition as some sharply criticized its political leaders for holding their first meeting with the rival Muslim Brotherhood a day earlier.

Around 60 people have been killed in protests, rioting and clashes that engulfed the country the past week in country’s worst crisis since the 2011 fall of autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

Around 6,000 protesters massed outside Morsi’s presidential palace in an upscale district of the capital, banging on the gates and throwing stones and shoes into the grounds in a show of contempt. At least one firebomb was thrown through the gates as crowds chanted, “Leave, leave,” addressing Morsi.

Security forces inside the palace responded by firing water cannons at the crowd, then volleys of tear gas. A tree inside the palace grounds caught fire. Riot police moved in outside the gates, sending the protesters scattering for cover, but then they surged back. “This is all because of Morsi!” one shouted.

Thousands more rallied in central Tahrir Square, while a larger crowd marched through the Suez Canal city of Port Said, which witnessed the worst clashes and highest casualties, pumping their fists in the air and chanting, “Leave, leave, Morsi.”

The wave of protests began around rallies marking the second anniversary of the uprising that toppled Mubarak. The unrest was prompted by public anger that Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood are monopolizing power and have failed to deal with the country’s mounting woes.

But outrage has been further fueled by Morsi’s public backing of what was seen as security forces’ use of excessive force against protesters last weekend, particular in Port Said, where around 40 people were killed.

Amid the escalating tensions the past week, there have been fears of direct clashes between Morsi’s opponents and his Islamist backers. Such battles broke out at the palace in December during an earlier wave of unrest, when Islamists attacked an anti-Morsi sit-in, prompting fighting that left around 10 dead.

A Brotherhood spokesman, Ahmed Arif, underlined on Friday that the group would not call its cadres into the streets. But a young Brotherhood member said the group’s members were ordered to gather in a mosque near the presidential palace, as a “precautionary measure” in case anti-Morsi protests turned violent. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.

The government, meanwhile, has increasingly blamed violence on a group of protesters called the Black Bloc, who wear black masks and have vowed to “defend the revolution.” Officials and state media depict them as conspiratorial saboteurs, but the opposition says authorities are using the group as a scapegoat to justify a crackdown.

Nearly 20 masked protesters are among hundreds arrested around the country the past week. Egypt‘s official news agency said on Thursday that a member of the Black Bloc was arrested with “Israeli plans” and maps to target vital institutions — recalling past allegations by Mubarak-era security officials that opponents were carrying out Israeli interests.

“There’s a great deal of exaggeration concerning the Black Bloc group,” said Gamal Fahmy, an opposition figure. “It hasn’t been proven that the group has committed violence, these are just calls over the social media.”

“This is an attempt from the Muslim Brotherhood to blackmail the opposition,” by depicting the anti-Morsi movement as violent, he said.

The eruption of violence prompted Morsi last Sunday to declare a state of emergency and curfew in Port Said and two other Suez Canal cities, where angry residents have defied the restrictions with nightly rallies.

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