- - 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.

The opposition said it will soon decide whether to mobilize a boycott of a Dec. 15 referendum on the draft constitution or work for a “no” vote.

Egyptian Vice President Mahmud Mekki said Wednesday the vote will take place as scheduled and invited the opposition to submit their concerns in writing. They have refused to do so.

Also on Wednesday, some private broadcasters shut off their programming to protest the draft constitution’s limitations on freedom of speech and press. That followed a strike by almost a dozen newspapers Tuesday.

Both camps said they are planning huge rallies for Friday, prompting concerns about more violence.

“Well, the situation is certainly extremely volatile,” said Mr. Hassan. “Now it’s a battle of who can mobilize more people to protest against the other. No camp wants to back down.”

Speaking Wednesday at a NATO meeting in Brussels, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Egypt’s unrest shows the urgent need for dialogue between the two camps, The AP reported.

She said the U.S. wants to see a constitution emerge that protects the rights of all Egyptians — men and women, Christian and Muslim.

The opposition and rights groups have criticized the draft constitution, saying it rolls back the rights of women, religious minorities and others.

• Jabeen Bhatti and Charles McPhedran reported from Berlin. Sarah Lynch in Cairo contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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