CAIRO -- Critics and supporters of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi clashed in Tahrir Square on Friday in a small but potent rally that sharpened the nation’s tensions over its political direction and the failure to bring loyalists of the former government to justice.
Followers of the Muslim Brotherhood and others supporting Morsi, the country’s first Islamist president, chided liberals and ransacked a stage set up by activists. Stones, bottles and gasoline bombs were hurled and two buses caught fire in the most intense hostilities between Islamists and secular activists in months.
The Health Ministry said that at least 110 people had been injured. The fighting cast a spotlight on a divided Egypt and highlighted the frustrations Islamists and liberals harbor over how little the Arab world’s most populous nation has improved since last year’s uprising that overthrew longtime leader Hosni Mubarak.
Activists blame Morsi’s government for threatening civil rights, drafting a proposed constitution steeped in Islamic law and not avenging the deaths of hundreds of protesters killed by security forces during last year's rebellion.
The rally came days after a criminal court found 24 Mubarak-era loyalists not guilty of plotting a deadly attack against protesters –- known as the Camel Battle -- during the revolution in February 2011. It was the latest sign, activists said, that Morsi has not reformed the country’s security agencies, including the reviled Ministry of Interior.
“I do not like Morsi. He and the Muslim Brotherhood are not fair with the people,” said protester Ranya Mohsen, dodging stones in a shifting battle between mostly young men on a street covered with murals of the revolution’s martyrs. “Morsi is really like Mubarak. He is taking our rights.”
Morsi’s Islamist supporters, waving banners and shouting through megaphones, were also protesting the recent acquittal. But they argued that the president, who has been in office just over three months, needs time to fix the country’s entrenched social and economic problems.
“Some people want to take this day away from Morsi. But I back him,” said Mahmoud Kamal, a university student. “Morsi is one of us. He feels the way all Egyptians suffer. He knows what has to be done.”
Egyptians have become increasingly agitated, with power shortages common, consumer prices rising, and few in the military or the security services brought to justice for human rights violations and crackdowns on demonstrations.
Morsi attempted to appease his countrymen this week: He pardoned hundreds of protesters arrested and convicted during the revolution and its volatile aftermath. His office also announced Thursday that it was removing Prosecutor General Abdel Meguid Mahmoud, a Mubarak holdover, from his post and assigning him as ambassador to the Vatican.
Mahmoud was criticized over the Camel Battle trial and for not winning strong convictions in other cases against former government loyalists. But the prosecutor was defiant, saying he would refuse to step aside and accusing Morsi of attempting to tamper with an independent judiciary.
Morsi’s move against Mahmoud mirrored the strategy he summoned in August to force the resignation of Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, who led the military-controlled government from Mubarak’s downfall until Morsi was sworn in on June 30. Tantawi’s appeal had been fading and was further weakened when Islamic militants killed 16 border guards in Sinai Peninsula. Morsi quickly moved against Tantawi.
Friday’s rally was smaller than past protests in Tahrir. The turnout suggested that secular-minded activist groups have passionate cores but cannot rouse large numbers to counter Islamists and the Brotherhood, whom liberals blamed for inciting the violence by disrupting a rally planned weeks earlier by activists.
Stones whistled through the air, bruising and bloodying faces. The opposing sides lifted banners and men, some belonging to rabid soccer fans known as Ultras, hopped on the shoulders of others. But, at times, it all seemed futile, even as a chicken delivery man, wearing a helmet, zipped through the crowd on his moped and throttled toward the Nile.
“We love Morsi. We love him,” said Ismail Roshdy, an Arabic language teacher, standing amid the snap of a flag and a preacher with a megaphone. “He will do good things for Egypt. He’s going bit by bit to make this country better.”
-- Jeffrey Fleishman
Photo: Protesters throw stones after scuffles broke out between groups of protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square on Friday. Credit: Khalil Hamra / AP