Egypt's army moves to restore order after protests

By Hamza Hendawi And Maggie Michael

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Dec. 6 2012 12:35 p.m. MST

FILE - In this Friday, July 13, 2012 file photo, Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi holds a joint news conference with Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki, unseen, at the Presidential palace in Cairo, Egypt. 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.(AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo, File)

Associated Press

CAIRO — The Egyptian army sealed off the presidential palace with tanks and barbed wire Thursday, a day after fierce clashes between supporters and opponents of the Islamist leader over a disputed constitution killed at least six people.

Compounding President Mohammed Morsi's woes, another member of his 17-person advisory panel resigned in protest of his handling of the crisis, bringing the total to seven in the past two weeks. Rafik Habib, the only Coptic Christian adviser, was the latest to resign.

Protesters defied a deadline to vacate the area, demanding that Morsi rescind his Nov. 22 decrees giving himself near-absolute power and withdraw the disputed draft constitution passed by his Islamist allies that is headed for a Dec. 15 referendum. But the situation was calm throughout the day.

Thousands of Morsi supporters camped overnight outside the palace after driving away opposition activists who had been staging a sit-in there, prompting the wild street battles that spread to upscale residential areas nearby. The Brotherhood, which had erected metal barricades and manned checkpoints with rocks and empty glass bottles overnight, withdrew from the area by afternoon.

"I don't want Morsi to back down," said Khaled Omar, a Brotherhood supporter who had camped out. "We are not defending him. We are defending Islam, which is what people want."

The violence on Wednesday was the worst since Morsi was elected in June.

The crisis began with Morsi's decrees setting himself above judicial oversight. That was followed by the hurried passing of a constitution draft by his Islamist allies, moves that deeply polarized the country and took political tensions to a height not seen since the uprising nearly two years ago that ousted authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak.

Morsi remains determined to press forward with the Dec. 15 referendum to pass the new charter. The opposition, for its part, is refusing dialogue unless Morsi rescinds the decrees and shelves the disputed charter.

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 country would grow even more polarized and violent.

Mohamed ElBaradei, an opposition leader, said late Wednesday that Morsi's rule was "no different" than Mubarak's.

"In fact, it is perhaps even worse," the Nobel Peace Prize laureate told a news conference after he accused the president's supporters of a "vicious and deliberate" attack on peaceful demonstrators outside the palace.

Morsi's moves over the constitution have re-energized and largely unified the previously fractious opposition.

Inside the palace gates, Morsi held crisis meetings Thursday with Cabinet members and military leaders, including the defense minister, according to a presidential statement.

"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.

The renewed violence sent Egypt's main stock market index down 4.6 percent. The loss was about 10.4 billion Egyptian pounds (around $1.7 billion). Persistent capital outflows since last year's uprising have forced the central bank to burn through its foreign currency reserves to support the Egyptian pound. The Central Bank of Egypt released figures Thursday that show foreign reserves at the end of November stood at just $15 billion, nearly half of what they were 19 months ago.

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 p.m. (1300 GMT, 8 a.m. 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.

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