CAIRO — A bloody night of running street battles outside President Mohammed Morsi's palace between the president's supporters and his outnumbered opponents upped the stakes in a two-week-old political crisis roiling Egypt and threatening the legitimacy of its first freely elected president.
Earlier this week, before violence erupted between pro- and anti-Morsi forces late Wednesday afternoon (Dec. 5), the crisis was primarily a political showdown over the disputed constitution that Morsi had rushed to a referendum vote on Dec. 15.
Decrees issued by Morsi on Nov. 22 put the Islamist president above oversight and widened rifts in Egyptian society about the direction of Egypt's political transition nearly two years after authoritarian president Hosni Mubarak was toppled by street protests.
In the 10 days following Morsi's announcement of his new powers, protests held for and against Morsi showed the divisions had worsened. The sheer fact that the rival camps could each draw hundreds of thousands of their supporters to the streets of Cairo was a sign that neither side was backing down.
Initially these protests were held separately, with liberals flocking to Tahrir Square and Islamists cheering for the president on streets around Cairo University, across the Nile River from Tahrir.
On Wednesday, the Muslim Brotherhood changed this dynamic of dueling but distinct protests when it called for its members to go to Egypt's presidential palace, where a few hundred opposition protesters were peacefully camped outside the palace gates following a Tuesday night rally of at least 100,000 anti-Morsi demonstrators.
Using social media and other tools, the Brotherhood once again showed their ability to mobilize supporters quickly and in large numbers. In a statement that foreshadowed what was to come, the vice president of the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party declared that “if state agencies are weak and still damaged by the wounds of the past, the people can impose its will and protect legitimacy." Essam al-Arian said that members of the FJP "will be in the front lines, God willing.”
Late Wednesday afternoon, thousands of Morsi's Islamist supporters arrived at an area outside the palace, chasing opposition protesters away and destroying their tents.
A few hours later, more opposition forces arrived and struck back at Morsi's supporters, leading to clashes that stretched through Wednesday night into early Thursday morning. The clashes left seven people dead and more than 600 wounded, according to the Health Ministry. Reporters Without Borders issued a statement Thursday condemning Morsi's supporters for deliberately firing on journalists and attacking them as they covered the clashes. The Egyptian paper Youm Al Saba reported Thursday that journalist Al-Hosseiny Abu Deif was in critical condition from a rubber bullet wound to his head.
As the two sides battled using firebombs, rocks, sticks and even handsaws, there was no word from the president. Egyptian analysts and opposition forces say that the president bears sole responsibility for the bloodshed outside the palace.
Heba Morayef, Egypt director for Human Rights Watch, called the bloody clashes an example of "overall state failure," saying that Morsi's government had allowed "private citizens to fight against one another with losses on both sides."
"The institutional forces bear responsibility for protecting peaceful protesters and for intervening to halt the violence," Morayef told Al-Monitor. "The security forces are under the command of the president, and the president has an additional role in the sense that he comes from a party that was engaged in the violence. So [he had] a political responsibility and an ability to actually de-escalate the violence by calling for a withdrawal of his supporters."
But although Morsi is the highest authority in Egypt, some say that he is not fully in control of the Muslim Brotherhood, undoubtedly the most powerful political force in the country.
"The decisions we see are not coming from Morsi; they are from the Guidance Bureau of the Muslim Brotherhood," Bahey Eddin Hassan, director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights, told Al-Monitor. "He will follow their instructions," said Hassan, pointing to statements by several of Morsi's advisers, four of whom have resigned in the past 24 hours. "These advisers say that they were not consulted at all, that they are learning of the president's decisions from the Internet."
Khalil al-Anani, a political analyst at the UK’s Durham University, agreed that Morsi does not have full control over the Brotherhood. "Morsi is acting as an independent president, but he is still under [the Brotherhood's] pressure. He has sacrificed his credibility among Egyptians to maintain his popularity among the Brotherhood," Al-Anani told Al-Monitor.
State television announced Thursday afternoon that Morsi would address the public later in the day, and the president's office issued a statement saying that Morsi had met the army chief of staff and cabinet ministers over measures to stabilize the country.
But any reaction by the president in the aftermath of yesterday's violence may fall short of repairing the damage to the notion of Morsi as a president "for all Egyptians."
What had been a political crisis has morphed into a violent confrontation with both sides digging in their heels. By nightfall on Thursday, several opposition marches were headed to the presidential palace, in spite of a statement announcing a ban on protests outside the palace and the deployment of army tanks to the area earlier in the day. Protesters in one of the marches held posters reading "Morsi out, game over."
Meanwhile, opposition forces that have united against Morsi's decisions accused Morsi's supporters of a "vicious and deliberate" attack on the demonstrators outside the palace. Mohamed ElBaradei, a leading opposition reform advocate, said late Wednesday that Morsi's rule was "no different" than Mubarak's.
At a café in downtown Cairo on Thursday morning, a young employee who would not give his name looked at the front page of the prominent independent daily Al Masry Al Youm in disgust. "Even though I wasn't there last night, this makes me want to go and fight," he said, pointing at a photo of a bearded man wielding an axe next to one of man with a bloodied face cowering as a crowd beat him.
"Morsi is capable of addressing this crisis but he does not have the political will," Gamal Eid, director of the Arabic Network of Human Rights Information in Cairo, told Al-Monitor. "The solution now is to cancel his decrees, postpone the referendum and make true dialogue with the opposition. If he does not, the conflicts on the street with continue and he will move from being an elected president to being like Mubarak."
Maggie Fick is a Cairo-based journalist. Follow her on Twitter @maggiefick.