Egypt's political crisis spiraled deeper into bitterness and recrimination Friday as thousands of Islamist backers of the president vowed vengeance at a funeral for men killed in the bloody clashes earlier this week and large crowds of the president's opponents marched on his palace to increase pressure after he rejected their demands.
Egyptian anti-government protesters broke through a barbed wire barricade keeping them from the presidential palace in Cairo and some climbed onto army tanks and waved flags.
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Up to 10,000 protesters had been penned behind the barrier, guarded by tanks that were deployed on Thursday after a night of violence between supporters and opponents of the Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi, in which seven people were killed.
Demonstrators cut the barbed wire and hundreds swarmed through and surged up to the walls of the palace, some kissing the police and military guards surrounding it. "Peaceful, peaceful," they chanted.
Troops of the Republican Guard, which had ordered rival demonstrators to leave the vicinity on Thursday, moved to the front gate to secure the main entrance to the palace.
Guards outside palace this week (Photo: Reuters)
The two camps in the country's divide appeared at a deadlock, after Morsi gave a fiery televised speech Thursday night denouncing his opponents and refusing to call off a referendum on a draft constitution promulgated by his allies, even as he appealed for dialogue. The opposition rejected talks, saying he must first cancel the referendum and meet other demands.
With Egypt's crisis now in its third week, anger was mounting in the streets, after the two camps clashed Wednesday in heavy battles outside the presidential palace that left more than 700 injured.
Each side is depicting the conflict as an all-out fight for Egypt's future and identity. The opposition accuses Morsi and his Islamist allies of turning increasingly dictatorial to force their agenda on the country, monopolize power and turn Egypt to a religious state. The Muslim Brotherhood, from which Morsi hails, and other Islamists say the opposition is trying to use the streets to overturn their victories in elections over the past year and stifle popular demands to implement Islamic Shariah law.
"Egypt won't be liberal'
The tone was one of a battle cry as thousands of Islamists held funeral prayers Friday at Al-Azhar Mosque – the country's premier Islamic institution – for Morsi supporters killed in Wednesday's clashes. Seeking to rally their side, a series of speakers to the crowd portrayed the opposition as tools of the regime of ousted leader Hosni Mubarak – or as decadent and un-Islamic – and vowed to defend a constitution they say brings Islamic law to Egypt.
"Egypt is Islamic, it will not be secular, it will not be liberal," the crowd chanted in a funeral procession filling streets around the mosque. During the funeral, thousands chanted, "With blood and soul, we redeem Islam," pumping their fists in the air. Mourners yelled that opposition leaders were "murderers."
One hardline cleric speaking to the crowd denounced anti-Morsi protesters as "traitors." Another declared that they will not allow Egypt to become "a den of hash smokers."
"We march on this path in sacrifice for the nation and our martyrs," a leading Brotherhood figure, Mohammed el-Beltagy, told the crowd. "We will keep going even if we all become martyrs. We will avenge them or die like them.
"Bread! Freedom! Islamic Law!" the crowd chanted, twisting the revolutionary slogan of "Bread! Freedom! Social Justice!" used by leftists and secular activists in the 2011 uprising against Mubarak.
At the same time, thousands of protesters against Morsi streamed in several marches from different parts of Cairo toward his presidential palace in an upscale neighborhood for a third straight day, before breaching the cordon that was set up around it. Many were furious over the president's speech the night before in which he accused "hired thugs" of attacking protesters outside the palace Wednesday, sparking the clashes. Most witnesses say the clashes began with Morsi supporters attacked a tent camp set up by anti-Morsi protesters.
The National Salvation Front, the main opposition umbrella group, repeated in a statement Friday its rejection of Morsi's call for dialogue saying he must first meet their demands. The opposition says Morsi must rescind decrees he issued last month giving himself sweeping powers and neutralizing the judiciary and cancel the planned Dec. 15 referendum on the draft constitution.
"After the bloodshed, we will not put our hands in the hands of those who killed new martyrs," Hamdeen Sabahi, a leading figure in the National Salvation Front, told protesters gathered Friday in central Tahrir Square.
Reuters and AP contributed to the report
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