By MATT BRADLEY, CAIRO (WSJ): Dueling protests spread across Egypt’s capital and several other cities Friday as the country prepared for a constitutional referendum on Saturday that looks set to widen the gap between Islamist and secular-leaning Egyptians.
The day went peacefully in Cairo, where a buffer zone was maintained between competing protests. In the coastal city of Alexandria, 10 injuries were reported in clashes between foes and supporters of the Islamist-influenced charter approved by a drafting assembly one week ago.
Though it took only a few blocks’ buffer to keep the peace between the government’s supporters and its opponents in the capital on Friday, the distance has grown between the two groups, with their contrasting visions of Egypt’s future.
Participants in both of Friday’s Cairo rallies conveyed a sense of abiding acrimony. At both locations, speakers on wooden platforms blasted their opponents’ leadership, using insulting terms and jeering songs that would have been impossible before Egypt’s revolution nearly two years ago.
“This is the real revolution. Why? Because it is with the legal president elected by Egyptians to go ahead with Egypt’s renaissance,” said Mohammed Al Shal, who was standing amid thousands of supporters of Islamist-backed President Mohammed Morsi in a Cairo suburb.
Though Mr. Shal said he rejected any violent confrontation with the counterprotest coalescing several miles away, he carried a construction helmet “just in case.”
At a smaller gathering of secular-leaning demonstrators on the other side of town in Tahrir Square, the focal point of the revolution against former President Hosni Mubarak, protesters carried signs mocking Mr. Morsi.
“No to traitors, no to liars, no to hypocrites,” read one sign calling for voters to reject the constitution. One speaker punctuated his remarks by tearing up a copy of the 236-article charter in front of the cheering crowd.
The voting, to be held on two consecutive Saturdays, could resolve the impasse that has gridlocked Egyptian politics for two weeks. A “Yes” vote would finalize the constitution, a slightly more Islamist version than the one that has governed Egypt since 1971. A “No” vote would compel Mr. Morsi to convene a new drafting assembly and compromise on some of the documents’ stricter articles.
In an email to foreign media on Friday, Mr. Morsi defended his decision to hold the referendum and smeared his opponents as “counterrevolutionary forces aiming at destroying the gains of the revolution.”
Political groups, as if girding for a long battle, have pooled their forces into alliances in the past three weeks. The Islamic Forces Coalition, whose 13 conservative religious groups back Mr. Morsi and his constitution, called Friday’s marches as a response to weeks of protests planned by the National Salvation Front, a group of liberal-minded political parties and former presidential candidates.
NSF leaders told followers to vote “No” in Saturday’s referendum, rather than boycott the vote. “History will remember that this regime forced a referendum in these harsh circumstances,” Ahmed Said, the head of the center-right Free Egyptians Party and a leader in the NSF, said in a news conference on Friday.
“I see this as a part of a cycle of revolutionary change that is going to take years to unfold,” said Abdeslam Maghraoui, a professor of political science at Duke University. “This is not the end of the story where the opposition will go and there will be silence. This is going to be a continuous process.”
The current discord began on Nov. 22, when Mr. Morsi announced a presidential decree that greatly expanded his power and blocked courts from dissolving an Islamist-dominated constitutional drafting committee.
The move sparked protests, and Mr. Morsi aroused more anger from liberals when he rushed the constitution’s completion and passage to avoid a confrontation with the judiciary.
The quarrel led to blows on Dec. 5 when Muslim Brotherhood leaders called on their supporters to defend the presidential palace from the liberal protesters who had surrounded it. Six people were killed and hundreds injured in the all-night clashes that followed.
The NSF continued to call for protests even after Mr. Morsi partially lifted his controversial decree early on Sunday.
The group’s leaders demanded that Mr. Morsi delay the referendum and allow dissenters more input into the draft constitution. Many liberal and Christian members of the constitutional drafting committee had left in protest before the document was finished.
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