CAIRO — Thousands of supporters and opponents of Egypt's new Islamist president clashed in Cairo's Tahrir Square on Friday, hurling stones and concrete and swinging sticks at each other in the first such violence since Mohammed Morsi took office more than three months ago.
The melee erupted between two competing rallies in Tahrir. One was by liberal and secular activists to criticize Morsi's failure to achieve promises he had made for first 100 days in power, the other by members and supporters of Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood.
Once fighting began, the activists unleashed their anger against the Brotherhood, accusing it of taking over the country through Morsi, dominating the writing of the next constitution and failing to bring about the democratic change or economic reform called for in last year's uprising that toppled longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
"My conclusion here is that Morsi is just the president of the Brotherhood, that's all. We are back to square one," since Mubarak's fall, said Sayed al-Hawari, who carried a plank of wood as a shield against the volleys of stones.
It was the first outright violence to break out between the two camps since Morsi — Egypt's first freely elected president — was inaugurated in late June.
Since then, political divisions have deepened as Morsi consolidated his authority over state institutions. Egyptians are struggling with a plunging economy and security woes. Many were also stunned by a court verdict earlier this week that acquitted 24 senior figures from Mubarak's regime on charges of manslaughter and attempted murder for allegedly organizing a deadly attack on protesters during last year's revolt.
Liberal and leftist groups had called Friday's protest to demand accountability and more action from Morsi after his first 100 days in office. The liberals also want greater diversity on the panel tasked with writing Egypt's new constitution, which is packed with Islamists, including Brotherhood members.
In response, the Brotherhood called for a separate rally to denounce the acquittals of the Mubarak loyalists and demand judicial reforms to ensure justice for slain protesters. They brought in busloads of supporters from provinces to attend.
The secular camp accused the group of holding the rally to distract from their anti-Morsi protest.
The violence erupted when Brotherhood supporters stormed the activists' stage, angered by chants they perceived as insults to the president. The Islamist backers smashed loudspeakers and tore the wooden stage down, witnesses said.
A melee ensued as the supporters of each camp moved in. Some tore up chunks of concrete and paving stones to hurl, others hit each other with sticks. Gunshots were heard. Two empty buses belonging to the Brotherhood parked near the square were set on fire behind the Egyptian Museum, the repository of Egypt's pharaonic antiquities. No police were on hand in the area during the violence.
The fighting went on for several hours, at times resembling scenes from the 18-day revolt against Mubarak, with one side holding one part of Tahrir, their rivals the other. Health Ministry official Ahmed al-Ansari said 12 people were treated in hospitals for head injuries.
One anti-Brotherhood protester, Abdullah Waleed, said he had voted for Morsi to prevent his presidential rival — a longtime Mubarak loyalist — from winning. "Now I regret it because they are just two faces of the same coin," he said. "Morsi has does nothing for the revolution. I want to say I am so sorry for bringing in another repressive regime."
A leftist protester, Rania Mohsen, said, "We are here against turning the state to a Brotherhood state .... We do not want to replace the old regime with a new like the old one."
A Brotherhood supporter, in turn, accused the other camp of being "thugs" who chanted against the leader of the Brotherhood and harassed the Islamists during noon prayers in Tahrir. "We have to give Morsi a chance," 19-year-old Moez Naggar, said. "The more protests we have, the less we can expect from him."
Around nightfall, fighting stopped as the Brotherhood supporters left the square in buses.
Meanwhile, Morsi was in Egypt's second largest city, Alexandria, where he pledged on Friday that former regime figures would be brought to justice despite Wednesday's verdicts.
The 24 were acquitted of organizing the so-called "Camel Battle," an incident on Feb. 2, 2011, when a crowd of Mubarak supporters —including assailants on horses and camels — attacked protesters holding a sit-in in Tahrir to demand his ouster. Two days of fighting ensued, leaving nearly a dozen dead.
In Alexandria, Morsi invoked the "martyrs of the revolution," including Khaled Said who died at the hands of Mubarak's police in Alexandria in 2010. Images of Said's severely disfigured face that had circulated widely online helped galvanize calls for last year's uprising that eventually overthrew Mubarak, after nearly 30 years in power.
"All of the segments of Egypt's society were deprived of many rights" under Mubarak, Morsi told a crowd of supporters. "And the biggest right deprived of us was the right to freedom."
Following the acquittals, Morsi on Thursday moved to dismiss the country's Mubarak-appointed prosecutor general in a bid to calm widespread anger. However, the prosecutor, Abdel-Maguid Mahmoud, refused to step down and vowed to remain in his post, citing a law that protects the prosecutor general from being ousted by the president.
Many blame the prosecutor for frequent acquittals of police and Mubarak-era officials over the past year, saying he put together shoddy cases. Egyptians were also disappointed in what they saw as a weak verdict in the trial against Mubarak. He is serving a life sentence for failing to stop the killing of protesters last year, but prosecutors did not prove he ordered killings and he was cleared of corruption charges.