Violence Fans Flames In Egypt Ahead of Key Vote
Published: December 12, 2012 (Issue # 1739)
CAIRO — Thousands of opponents and supporters of Egypt’s Islamist president were flocking to key locations in the nation’s capital ahead of rival mass rallies Tuesday, four days before a nationwide referendum on a contentious draft constitution.
The protesters were beginning to gather just hours after masked assailants set upon opposition protesters staging a sit-in at Tahrir Square, firing birdshot and swinging knives and sticks, according to security officials. At least 11 protesters were wounded in the pre-dawn attack, according to a Health Ministry spokesman quoted by the official MENA news agency.
The violence stoked tensions ahead of the mass demonstrations in Cairo by supporters and opponents of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi over the disputed draft constitution. The charter has deeply polarized the nation and triggered some of the worst violence since Morsi took office in June as Egypt’s first freely elected president.
Protests are also planned elsewhere in Egypt, including the Mediterranean city of Alexandria and Suez to the east of Cairo.
The latest spate of violence in Egypt has divided the country into two camps: President Mohammed Morsi, his Muslim Brotherhood and ultraorthodox Salafis on the one side, and liberals, leftists and Christians, on the other.
It was unclear who was behind the pre-dawn attack on the protesters who have been staging a sit-in at Tahrir for nearly three weeks, security officials said on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to talk to the media.
The Tahrir protesters belong to the liberal opposition, which claims the draft of the charter restricts freedoms and gives Islamists vast influence over the running of the country. The draft, hurriedly adopted late last month in a marathon session by a constituent assembly dominated by the president’s Islamist allies, is going to a nationwide referendum Saturday.
The dispute prompted hundreds of thousands of the president’s opponents to take to the streets in massive rallies — the largest from primarily secular groups since the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak last year. Morsi’s supporters responded with huge demonstrations of their own, which led to clashes in the streets that left at least six people dead and hundreds wounded.
The opposition has rejected any dialogue with Morsi until he shelves the draft constitution and postpones the referendum. They have also demanded that Morsi rescind decrees giving him near absolute powers. He withdrew those powers on Saturday, but insisted that the vote will go ahead as scheduled.