Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Egypt's Morsi Stiffens as Turmoil Deepens

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Egypt's Morsi Stiffens as Turmoil Deepens

Article excerpt

CAIRO -- Egypt descended deeper into political turmoil Thursday as embattled President Mohammed Morsi blamed an outbreak of violence on a "fifth column" and vowed to proceed with a referendum on an Islamist-backed constitution that has prompted deadly street battles between his supporters and their secular opponents.

As the tanks and armored vehicles of an elite military unit ringed the presidential palace, Mr. Morsi gave a nationally televised address offering only a hint of compromise, while preserving his assertion of sweeping authority. His opponents quickly rejected, even mocked, his speech and vowed continued protests ahead of a planned Dec. 15 vote on the draft constitution.

Many said the speech had echoes of his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, who saw conspiracy in the unrest that brought him down. Mr. Morsi said that corrupt beneficiaries of Mubarak's autocracy had been "hiring thugs and giving out firearms, and the time has come for them to be punished and penalized by the law." He added, "It is my duty to defend the homeland."

Mr. Morsi, a former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, spoke a day after the growing antagonism between his supporters and the secular opposition had spilled out into the worst outbreak of violence between political factions in Egypt since Gamal Abdel Nasser's coup six decades ago. By the time the fighting ended, six people were dead and hundreds wounded. The violence also led to resignations that rocked the government, as advisers, party members and the head of the commission overseeing a planned vote on a new constitution stepped down, citing the bloodshed and the president's management of the political crisis.

Mr. Morsi also received a phone call from U.S. President Barack Obama, who expressed his "deep concern" about the deaths and injuries overnight, the White House said in a statement. "The president emphasized that all political leaders in Egypt should make clear to their supporters that violence is unacceptable," the statement said, chastising both Mr. Morsi and the opposition leaders for failing to urge their supporters to pull back during the fight.

Prospects of a political solution also seemed a casualty, as both sides effectively refused to back down on core demands.

The opposition leadership refused to negotiate until Mr. Morsi withdrew a decree that put his judgments beyond judicial review -- which he refused to do. And it demanded that a referendum on a new constitution be canceled, which he also refused.

The hostilities have threatened to undermine the legitimacy of the constitutional referendum with doubts about political coercion. The feasibility of holding the vote also appears uncertain amid attacks on party offices around the country and open street fighting in the shadow of the presidential palace. …

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