CAIRO // Egypt plunged into a new period of violence last night as riot police were deployed to stop street battles between supporters and opponents of the president, Mohammed Morsi.
The clashes erupted after the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters rallied outside the presidential palace.
Five people were reported dead and more than 450 injured, according to the Egyptian Ministry of Health.
At least three tanks have been deployed outside the palace today, according to a Reuters witness.
On Tuesday the opposition had congregated at the palace in large numbers calling for Mr Morsi to rescind a declaration giving himself legislative powers beyond the reach of the courts to protect a constitution that critics say is non-inclusive.
Fights broke out and some Brotherhood supporters ripped down tents erected by anti-Morsi protesters the night before. Molotov cocktails were thrown and witnesses reported gunfire.
The coordinator the umbrella opposition group National Salvation Front, Mohamed ElBaradei, said Mr Morsi was "completely responsible for the violence".
"Our opinion was, and still is, that we are ready for dialogue if the constitutional decree is cancelled ... and the referendum on this constitution is postponed," he said.
Two aides to the president, Seif Abdel-Fattah, Amr Al Leithy and Ayman El Sayyad, resigned after the clashes, according to Al Ahram.
A dispute over the constitution lies at the heart of the dispute between the opposition and the ruling Islamists.
The anti-Morsi protesters believe that the president's November 22 declaration giving him greater powers was made to prevent courts or opponents of the draft constitution from stopping it from being railroaded through. The constitutional committee that drafted the new charter rushed through an approval last month despite more than 20 of its 100 members walking out of the process.
A yes-or-no referendum is scheduled for December 15, but the anti-Morsi groups are against the vote because they believe the process was flawed and did not represent the whole country. The National Salvation Front, an umbrella group for opposition forces, said it would not cease protests unless the president rescinds his declaration, cancels the referendum and establishes a new committee to rewrite the constitution.
Mr Morsi has stood his ground against the groundswell of opposition. His vice president, Mahmoud Mekki, yesterday called on Egyptians in a televised press conference to express their will through voting during the referendum and cease street protests. Mr Morsi is backed by a powerful bloc of Islamists, many who believe that Mr Morsi's declaration was necessary to protect the democratic transition from being sabotaged by a judiciary they claim is ridden with anti-Islamist holdovers from the Mubarak regime.
"There is real political will to pass the current period and respond to the demands of the public," he said, adding: "The door for dialogue is open for those who object to the draft of the constitution."
Mr Mekki said that any problems with the current draft could be amended by a new parliament, which is scheduled to be elected sometime early next year.
Amr Moussa, a failed presidential candidate and opposition leader, responded to Mr Mekki's comments by saying Mr Morsi should make a formal offer for dialogue to end the crisis.
"We are ready when there is something formal, something expressed in definite terms; we will not ignore it, especially if there is something useful," Mr Moussa told Reuters yesterday.
With neither side giving clear signals that they will back down, the deadlock could lead to "chaos and instability" or "national paralysis," said Emad Shahin, a professor at the American University in Cairo who studies the intersection of Islam and politics.
"It's highly intense and highly polarised," he said. "On one side, the president needs to integrate the political forces and build a consensus. And on the other, the opposition should not drag a legitimately elected president into bloody confrontations on the streets. Democracy is about contestation, dialogue and interaction. We can't unseat the president every time he makes a decision we don't like. If we did, we would have a new president every few months."
* With additional reporting by Reuters