Cairo, Dec 7: Thousands of angry Egyptian opposition protesters broke through an army barricade to march on the presidential palace on Friday, demanding Islamist President Mohamed Morsi to call off a controversial constitutional referendum that sparked the worst violence since he assumed power in June.
Soldiers, however, prevented the protesters from nearing the presidential palace's main gate. Protesters have been arriving in the iconic Tahrir Square since early morning to prepare for mass rallies against Morsi, demanding that the President must roll back his edict granting himself expanded powers and must postpone the scheduled Dec 15 referendum on the constitution. They say the new draft constitution does not adequately represent or protect all Egyptians.
Egypt's main opposition coalition, the National Salvation Front, said it would not take part in the dialogue proposed by Morsi on Friday night, a senior member of the group said. The demonstrators from venues around Cairo including Giza, Tahrir Square, Abbaseya and a number of mosques converged on the presidential Palace in Heliopolis, where tanks and armoured cars were positioned to keep protesters at bay.
The areas around the presidential palace witnessed violent clashes between anti and pro-Morsi supporters in the past two days that left seven people dead and nearly 700 injured. Muslim Brotherhood Mohamed Badie preached the sermon in Al-Azhar mosque today during the funeral of people who were killed in clashes in front of the presidential palace.
Following the prayers, the people attending the payers took to the street chanting "Egypt is Islamic Islamic" which caused immediate panic on social media. Today's protest has been variously termed 'Friday to oust the Brotherhood's militias', 'Red Card Friday' and 'Ultimatum Friday'. Hundreds of protesters have been holding a sit-in in Tahrir Square since Nov 22 when Morsi's constitutional declaration rendered his decisions above judicial challenge and made the Islamist-dominated Shura Council and Constituent Assembly immune from dissolution by court order.
Earlier, supporters of Morsi held their own march in Cairo. Addressing the nation in a live televised speech last night, Morsi refused to withdraw the controversial edict he issued and vowed to go ahead with a referendum on the new constitution on Dec 15.
Mursi said he respects peaceful opposition to his decisions but will not tolerate violence. He condemned those involved in the clashes -- referring specifically to those with weapons and who are backed by members of the "corrupt ... ex-regime" -- and promised they'd be held accountable. "(They) will not escape punishment," the president said.
In his speech, Mursi said more than 80 people had been arrested after days of violent protests. He offered to hold dialogue with the opposition and to meet their representatives tomorrow in his office. Minutes after the speech ended, the Muslim Brotherhood headquarters in Cairo was set "ablaze," state TV reported, citing witnesses. Police also fired tear gas to disperse hundreds of protesters gathered outside the president's house in his hometown of Zagazig, north of Cairo.
The Islamist group said on its website and Twitter that the building had come under "a terrorist attack," with hundreds surrounding it -- though there was no sign of a fire or significant damage. On Twitter, the Brotherhood has said it will hold opposition figures "fully responsible for escalation of violence and inciting their supporters."
Clashes erupted in the coastal city of Alexandria between pro and anti-Mursi protesters following Friday prayers there. Security was beefed up around the media city close to Cairo after hardline Salafis called on their supporters to siege the city which hosts studios for private TV stations.
Meanwhile, Ahram Online reported quoting Justice Minister Ahmed Mekki that the President may delay the referendum, if the opposition accepts dialogue without preconditions. "The president is ready to talk with political figures without any preconditions. He is open to the idea of postponing the referendum to reach consensus over the contentious articles," Mekki said.
According to the website, Head of the Supreme Electoral Commission Samir Abu El-Maati confirmed that the expatriate voting on the constitution referendum has been postponed from Saturday to Wednesday (Dec 12).