The Egyptian army sealed off the presidential palace with barbed wire and armored vehicles Thursday as protesters defied a deadline to vacate the area, pressing forward with demands that Islamist leader Mohammed Morsi rescind decrees giving himself near-absolute power and withdraw a disputed draft constitution.
Meanwhile, Egyptian newspaper Al-Youm Al-Sabaa reported of violent clashes between Egyptian security forces and protesters not far from the Morsi family home in the city of Zagazig, the capital of the Al Sharqia Governorate in northern Egypt. According to the reports, the Presidential Guard has begun evacuating the Morsi family from their residence.
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Though it is still unclear which family members are being evacuated, Zagazig is Morsi's hometown and it was previously reported that his wife had remained in the city so as to allow their son to finish his studies.
Inside the palace gates, Morsi met with members of his Cabinet and military leaders to discuss the expanding crisis after fierce street battles in an upscale residential suburb of Cairo killed five people and left more than 600 injured in the worst outbreak of violence between the two sides since the Islamist leader's election.
The intensity of the overnight violence, with Morsi's Islamist backers and largely secular protesters lobbing firebombs and rocks at each other, raised the specter that the 2-week-old crisis that has left the country sharply divided would grow more polarized and violent.
The army's Republican Guard, an elite unit assigned to protect the president and his palaces, surrounded the complex and gave protesters on both sides until 3 pm (1300 GMT, 8 am EDT) to clear the vicinity, according to an official statement. The statement also announced a ban on protests outside any of the nation's presidential palaces.
Tank outside Presidential Palace in Cairo (Photo: EPA)
But a group of several dozen anti-Morsi protesters continued to demonstrate across the street from the palace past the military's deadline Thursday afternoon, chanting slogans against the president. And organizers called for a larger evening rally. Meanwhile, members of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists supporting Morsi withdrew from the area after an overnight sit-in.
Inside the palace gates, Morsi held crisis meetings Thursday with Cabinet members and military leaders, including the defense minister, according to a presidential statement.
Protesters in Cairo (Photo: Reuters)
"The president discussed ways to deal with the situation regarding the political, security and legal landscapes so that Egypt can achieve stability and preserve the gains of the revolution," the statement said.
Egypt has seen sporadic clashes throughout nearly two years of political turmoil after Hosni Mubarak's ouster in February 2011. But Wednesday's street battles were the worst between Morsi's supporters and opponents.
The clashes began after an implicit call by the Muslim Brotherhood and its political party, to which the president belongs, for their members to go to the palace and stage a sit-in that would remove anti-Morsi protesters who were camped out there.
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