Street Fights Rock Cairo as Supporters and Foes of Morsi Clash over Constitution

My latest for The Nation, unfortunately it was published just a few hours before President Morsi delivered a speech where he offered some concessions which are being criticized by the opposition as being merely cosmetic and a case of too little, too late.

Thousands of supporters and opponents of Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi clashed in the streets around the presidential palace Wednesday, hurling rocks and Molotov cocktails and firing birdshot at each other in the largest outbreak of violence between rival political groups since the revolution began. Seven people were killed and more than 670 injured, according to the Health Ministry, as Cairo’s affluent Heliopolis district was transformed into a scene of chaos and bloodshed.

The clashes spread outside of Cairo, erupting in Alexandria and Mahalla. The offices of the Muslim Brotherhood were set ablaze in Suez and Ismailia.

The street battles marked a major escalation in the crisis that erupted on November 22, when President Morsi, who hails from the Muslim Brotherhood, issued a constitutional declaration that granted him near absolute powers and placed him beyond the review of any court until the ratification of a new constitution.

The decree united Morsi’s fractured non-Islamist opposition and sparked some of the largest street demonstrations in Egypt since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak. Tens of thousands gathered in Tahrir Square and launched a mass sit-in to oppose Morsi’s seizure of power. Meanwhile, thousands of judges—including the leaders of Egypt’s highest appeals courts—launched a strike in protest.

Morsi and the Brotherhood responded by doubling down on a strategy to force the transition process and hastily called for a final vote by the Constituent Assembly on the draft constitution. Nearly all of the 100-member body’s non-Islamist members, including representatives of the Coptic Christian Church, had already withdrawn from the assembly.

In a marathon, seventeen-hour session broadcast on state television, assembly members—nearly all of them Islamist—passed each of the 234 articles of the constitution in near unanimity, finally ending at 7 am the next day. Critics blasted the process as reminiscent of the Mubarak era, when the regime would ram legislation through the parliament. The text itself has come under criticism for restricting certain freedoms and containing vague language that lawmakers could use to curtail rights.

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