CAIRO — Thousands of protesters clashed violently with one another Friday in dueling demonstrations over the performance of Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president, and the group he once led, the Muslim Brotherhood.
At least 110 people were injured in the melee that underscored how, three months after Morsi came to office, Egypt’s political system has become a rivalry between conservative Islamists who want religion to play a major role in governance and Egyptians who favor a more secular society.
Clashes that began in Cairo’s Tahrir Square spread to side streets where demonstrators fired gunshots and threw sticks, stones, Molotov cocktails and glass bottles at each other. The Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party said protesters also burned its buses and set a party building ablaze.
The skirmishes between the supporters and opponents of Morsi began after some of the demonstrators chanted "Down, down with the supreme guide," referring to the top official of the Muslim Brotherhood, of which Morsi was a leading member for decades before resigning once he won the presidency.
Brotherhood supporters yelled offsetting chants in support of Morsi and eventually destroyed a temporary podium that had been built in Tahrir for speeches, according to state television.
Liberal and secular groups had called for demonstrations weeks ago to protest what they said was Morsi’s failure to fulfill promises in his administration’s first 100 days. The groups also demanded more influence over the drafting of the country’s new constitution, for increases in the minimum wage, and trials for those accused of killing protesters during last year’s uprising against then-President Hosni Mubarak.
On Wednesday, the Muslim Brotherhood called its own protest after an Egyptian judge acquitted 24 Mubarak loyalists of charges they’d participated in or helped plan an infamous incident during last year’s uprising when Mubarak supporters riding camels and horses stormed the crowds in Tahrir Square, leaving 21 dead and hundreds injured.
The day after the acquittal Morsi ordered the prosecutor to step down. But the prosecutor, Abdel-Meguid Mahmoud, refused to be relieved, even though Morsi appointed him ambassador to the Vatican.
Secular demonstrators accused the Brotherhood of stepping in to disrupt their protest.
“I don’t understand why (the Brotherhood) is protesting,” said Shady Malek, 26, a telecommunication engineer who was among the secular demonstrators. “They have all the legislative and executive authorities.”
Others accused the Brotherhood of adopting the same tactics as Mubarak to suppress dissent.
Kamal Khalil, a leading member of the Revolutionary Socialist party, said the Brotherhood’s goal had been “to beat up the people.”
“They are taking on the role of the Central Security Forces,” he said, referring to the riot police Mubarak often called out to put down demonstrations.
Brotherhood demonstrators said they were simply showing support for the new president and his effort to dismiss the chief prosecutor.
“I came to support Morsi’s decision to dismiss the prosecutor. From day one we were calling to overthrow the regime and he is a man of the regime,” Abdel Wahab Seliem, 50, a clothing shop owner. “The will of the people should be above everything.”
Ismail is a McClatchy special correspondent. Email: Egypt@mcclatchydc.com