CAIRO, February 4 (Shahira Amin for RIA Novosti) – A protester was shot dead and several others were injured when a rally outside Al Ittihadeya Presidential Palace in Cairo turned violent on Friday. A mob of young men, some of them masked, hurled rocks and Molotov cocktails into the palace grounds, charring trees and starting a small fire. Security forces set up barricades, using water cannon and tear gas to disperse the protesters. The sound of wailing sirens could be heard as ambulances ferried the injured to nearby hospitals.
Meanwhile, televised scenes of a man who was arrested, stripped naked, dragged and beaten by security forces served as a painful reminder that little had changed in the “new Egypt,” two years after a popular revolt that had been sparked by police brutality.
In a telephone call to the Egyptian Al Hayat independent TV channel, Interior Ministry spokesman Yasser Hawari admitted that a “mistake” had been made. He added that the police officers responsible for the violence would be immediately investigated and brought to justice. The security forces’ brutal crackdown on those committing acts of violence during Friday's protests threatened to escalate tensions still further, after a week of clashes between protesters and security forces that left scores dead and hundreds injured.
The rally, which had started off peacefully, was part of the “Endgame Friday Protests” held nationwide to pile pressure on Islamist President Mohamed Morsi to step down. Braving cold and rainy weather, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians took to the streets, reiterating calls for “an end to the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood Supreme Guide” and “retribution for the martyrs.”
"He has to leave, we won't leave," chanted thousands of protesters in Cairo's iconic Tahrir Square, the birthplace of the mass uprising that toppled former autocratic President Hosni Mubarak two years ago.
Similar chants were echoed by a smaller group of demonstrators outside the Ittihadeya Palace, signaling the opposition activists’ determination to continue their revolt despite an earlier pledge by liberal opposition political parties and Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood to end this confrontation. On Thursday, the rival parties had met for talks (hosted by Al Azhar, Sunni Islam's highest authority) aimed at ending the conflict that has plunged the country deep into political and economic turmoil.
The fact that members of the opposition National Salvation Front (NSF) took part in the talks amounted to a policy shift for the alliance, which had previously insisted its demand for inclusion in a national unity government be met as a pre-condition for dialog with the Islamist regime. While President Morsi has yet to respond to this call, he has said that a new government will only be formed after the parliamentary elections which are slated for April.
In an official statement issued shortly after the Ittihadeya clashes, the president’s office said that it held the opposition political forces that had called for the protests “fully responsible for the latest violence.” It added that an investigation into the palace attacks would be conducted. The NSF had earlier accused President Morsi of responsibility for last week’s bloody confrontations between protesters and security forces in five major Egyptian cities (including the capital Cairo).
The latest wave of unrest, which began on the eve of the second anniversary of the January 2011 Revolution, prompted the government to impose a curfew and state of emergency in three restive Canal provinces: Port Said, Suez and Ismailia – which became the scene of some of the worst violence in the country since Morsi came to power. The imposition of martial law and the sentencing to death of 21 people convicted in last year's deadly Port Said soccer riots further fuelled public anger, unleashing a fresh wave of defiant protests and forcing President Morsi to retract the extraordinary measures.The armed forces have also been deployed in Port Said and Suez, raising concerns of the country returning to martial rule.
Opposition forces have also accused Morsi of consolidating Muslim Brotherhood rule in Egypt by appointing members of the Islamist movement from which he hails in key positions in major state institutions. The Brotherhood meanwhile has accused liberal political forces of trying to topple Egypt’s first democratically-elected civilian president post-revolution by urging people to go out and protest.
The civil unrest sparked by Morsi’s issuance of a controversial constitutional declaration in November that gave him absolute powers has also had its toll on the economy. Not only has the political instability pushed away investors and tourists, it has also forced the government to sell off the foreign currency reserves it badly needs to pay for vital imports in order to keep the Egyptian pound from crashing.
Amid the increased finger-pointing and deep polarization in Egyptian society, analysts fear the political crisis may worsen in the coming weeks. They say that the dialog initiated by Al Azhar is an important first step towards reconciling the rival factions and easing political tensions. But it is equally important, they say, to bring the perpetrators of the violence to justice.
“Those who incited violence and committed acts of sabotage during the protests must be punished. The police officers who practiced rights abuses must also be held accountable. Unless that happens, chaos and instability will be the order of the day and may even lead to a total collapse of the state,” said Nabil Zaki, Editor of Egypt's El Ahaly newspaper.
Shahira Amin is an Egyptian journalist, the former deputy head of Egyptian state-owned Nile TV and one of its senior anchors.