x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Fresh street violence in dangerously divided Egypt

The violence erupts as Al Azhar, Egypt's leading religious authority, attempts to bring together adversaries in the political crisis and as Egypt's interim president swore in 20 new provincial governors.

Egyptian riot police fire tear gas as supporters of ousted president Mohammed Morsi clash with residents and police in downtown Cairo.
Egyptian riot police fire tear gas as supporters of ousted president Mohammed Morsi clash with residents and police in downtown Cairo.

CAIRO // Supporters and opponents of the former Egyptian president, Mohammed Morsi, battled in Cairo yesterday, hurling rocks at each other as police fired volleys of tear gas.

The violence erupted as Al Azhar, Egypt's leading religious authority, tried to bring together adversaries in the political crisis and as Egypt's interim president swore in 20 new provincial governors.

The move, which includes the appointment of seven military figures as governors, reinforces the new leadership's authority and removes all Muslim Brotherhood members previously installed in the posts.

Mr Morsi's Brotherhood has said it was ready take part in talks as long as they were on the right terms.

But the clashes showed that the country was still dangerously divided six weeks after the army overthrew Mr Morsi.

Brotherhood protest camps at Cairo's Al Nahda Square and around Rabaa Al Adawiyya mosque are the immediate focus of the crisis. Morsi supporters stood their ground behind barricades yesterday while Egypt's interim leaders debated how to end their sit-in.

No police crackdown appeared imminent despite frequent warnings from the army-installed government that Mr Morsi's supporters should pack up and leave peacefully.

Security officials and witnesses said yesterday's fighting broke out when Brotherhood members tried to break into the interior ministry where they said members are being held.

Pro-army residents and shopworkers taunted them, calling them terrorists and saying they were not welcome. They then threw stones at the marchers, getting showered back in return.

Some hurled bottles at the Morsi supporters from balconies. Police then fired tear gas at the demonstrators. Women and children marchers fled the scene in panic.

The clashes spread to several streets and brought Cairo traffic to a standstill.

"There's no going forward with negotiations, the only way is back. Morsi must be reinstated," said Karim Ahmed, a student in a blue hard hat who waved a picture of Mr Morsi as he flung rocks at a ministry building.

Mr Morsi took office in June last year as Egypt's first freely elected leader following the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in a popular uprising the previous year.

The army ousted Mr Morsi amid huge demonstrations against his rule and he and other Brotherhood leaders are now in jail.

Foreign mediators say the Brotherhood must accept that Mr Morsi will not be reinstated. At the same time, the authorities must bring the Brotherhood back into the political process, they say.

The Brotherhood and the Salafist Al Nour party, Egypt's second largest Islamist party, both suggested yesterday that they would be willing to join a meeting called by Al Azhar, whose initiative is the only known effort to end the crisis peacefully following the collapse of international mediation last week.

"If they stick to the rules we're asking for, yes," said the Brotherhood spokesman, Gehad El Haddad, adding that talks would have to be based on the "restoration of constitutional legitimacy".

The Brotherhood would oppose proposals made by Al Azhar's grand sheikh, Ahmed El Tayeb, because he had supported the army's overthrow of Mr Morsi, Mr El Haddad said. But he said there had been contact with other Al Azhar officials.

Al Nour's head, Younes Makhyoun, said his party had been invited to the Azhar talks.

"Currently the noble Al Azhar is trying to bring together for discussions those who have drawn up initiatives to agree, for example, on one initiative and vision, which we will use to pressure all the parties, so they accept it," he said.

The effort, however, was being complicated by the friction between the Brotherhood and Al Azhar, he said.

The government has its own plan for elections in nine months.

* Reuters with additional reporting by the Associated Press