Pro- and anti-Islamist protesters clash in Egypt

CAIRO (AP) — Clashes erupted Friday between several hundred opponents and supporters of Egypt’s Islamist president during a rally by his allies calling on him to “cleanse the judiciary” of alleged supporters of the old regime.

The violence, in which the two sides pelted each other with stones and a bus was set on fire, has become an entrenched feature of Egypt’s stormy politics. In recent weeks, several marches and rallies by the various camps in the deeply polarized nation have devolved into street battles, fueling the bitterness on all sides.

Thousands of supporters of President Mohammed Morsi — mostly backers of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists — held rallies outside the High Court building in Cairo and in the coastal city of Alexandria, demanding the “cleaning of the judiciary.” The marches come as the Islamist-dominated legislature announced plans to begin debating a bill that its supporters say aims to ensure the judiciary’s independence.

Opponents fear it aims to purge many judges so Islamists can install new ones more supportive of their agenda. A government-penned draft bill has also been under preparation, and a Brotherhood official’s comments fueled fears that as many as a quarter of Egypt’s over 13,000 judges and prosecution officials may be sent into retirement.

As some Islamists moved toward Cairo’s Tahrir Square, they were met by anti-Morsi youth a few blocks from the square, some of them in masks. It was not clear who started the clashes, but it led to both sides pelting each other with stones. One bus was seen set on fire. The sound of birdshot cracked through the air in the clashes, and tear gas was fired — even though there were no police nearby.

Some of the masked youths and some Islamists were seen with homemade pistols. Others wielded iron bars and tree branches and broke up street pavements to throw the chunks of asphalt and concrete. At least 39 people were injured, according to the state news agency MENA.

Ahmed Hamdi, a Muslim Brotherhood supporter at the scene, blamed the anti-Morsi protesters for the violence, calling them “thugs” and saying they set the bus on fire.

“The whole story is they see that Islamists are now in power. They can’t swallow this, that Islamists rule them. It’s a battle with the old regime. The president must intervene to stop all this,” he said.

Police later moved in trying to break up the clashes, but side streets continued to witness clashes. Some protesters sealed off streets to prevent the police from chasing them, as Islamists formed human chains to prevent their opponents from charging at them.

Egypt has been deeply divided for months over Morsi’s rule and the political dominance of his Islamist allies, leading to repeated violence even as the country’s economy continues to deteriorate.

Morsi’s opponents accuse the Islamists of monopolizing power, pushing through their own agenda, and allowing continued Mubarak-style human rights abuses. The president, the Brotherhood and Islamist politicians say the opposition is using street violence to topple elected Islamists and destabilize the country.

The judiciary has been frequently dragged into in the political confrontation.

Morsi and the judiciary have had tense relations since he was inaugurated in June last year. Judges accused him of trampling on their authority with a series of decrees that made Morsi’s decisions immune from judicial challenges for a time, protected a constitutional assembly from being dissolved by the courts and unilaterally installed a new top prosecutor. The prosecutor remains in place despite a court order last month annulling his appointment.

Morsi supporters charge that the judiciary is controlled by supporters of ousted President Hosni Mubarak who are trying to undermine Morsi’s authority and derail Egypt’s transition to democracy.

The judiciary has repeatedly dealt the Islamist camp several setbacks. Courts dissolved the Islamist-majority lower house of parliament last year, saying the law governing its election was invalid. This year, a court forced a delay in elections for a new parliament when it ruled that a new election law drafted by Islamists had to be reviewed by the Supreme Constitutional Court.

The election had been due to start this month but they have been put off with no new date set. In the meantime, the upper house of parliament — the Shura Council, a normally powerless body elected with no more than 6 percent of voters and where Islamists hold an overwhelming majority — is serving as the legislature.

The Muslim Brotherhood, from which Morsi hails, also criticized the courts over several recent acquittals of former officals from Mubarak’s regime as well as a court order to release Mubarak himself, who is being re-tried over charges of killing protesters during the 2011 uprising that led to his ouster. Mubarak remains in detention on other charges.

Thousands of Morsi supporters, mainly from Islamist groups, converged on the High Court building in downtown Cairo after Friday Muslim prayers.

“The people want to cleanse the judiciary,” they chanted outside the building. “Go for it Morsi and we are behind you. Cleanse the judiciary.” Others shouted, “Hey, judge, who are you protecting, justice or the corrupt?”

A few thousands also gathered in Alexandria repeating the same demands. The Brotherhood had backed the rallies, although some ultraconservative Salafi groups said they will not take part.

The Brotherhood’s secretary-general, Mahmoud Hussein, said earlier that Friday’s march aimed to push for the implementation of “the demands of the revolution,” including calling on the Shura Council to pass new legislation regulating the judiciary, which he said would ensure its independence. Hussein said the demands also include “revolutionary measures” to ensure purging state institutions from corrupt officials.

The Islamist al-Wasat Party presented to the Shura council a proposal to revise the current law regulating the judiciary. Just before the rallies Thursday, the head of the Shura Council Ahmed Fahmy said he referred the proposal to the legislative and constitutional committee to review it for future discussions.

The head of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political party, Saad el-Katatni, told a political gathering Thursday that transition period is over, and now is time to “complete work on the institutions.”

“The revolution happened because the executive at the time was transgressing on all other authorities,” he said. “The people who carried out the revolution don’t allow any authority, even the judiciary, to transgress on popular will. The popular will is the source of all authorities.”

Opposition groups decried the protests and calls for amending the judiciary law as an attempt by Islamists, who control the legislature and the executive, to consolidate their hold on power and control state institutions.

The courts are the sole branch of government not under the dominance of Morsi’s Islamist allies, although he does have some backers among the judges. Revolutionary groups have long called for reforming state institutions, including the judiciary and the Interior Ministry, to remove Mubarak holdovers, but they fear the Islamists will only replace them with their own supporters.

Hamdeen Sabahi, an opposition leader, called the Friday protests a prelude to “a new massacre” in the judiciary, violating its independence.

“Any claims by the authority or the ruling group about cleansing the judiciary are basically a new massacre of the judiciary,” he wrote on his Twitter account. “We will support the independence of the Egyptian judiciary against any attempts by the executive to encroach on it.”

Mohammed ElBaradei, the leader of the liberal al-Dustor party and prominent opposition figure, said on his Twitter account that the protests Friday are an example of how “demagogy” remains the overwhelming trait of how the ruling regime understands and tackles problems.

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