December 7, 2012


[Some observers said the president speech echoed his predecessor, Mr. Mubarak, who always saw “hidden hands” behind public unrest. Mr. Morsi said that corrupt beneficiaries of Mr. 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.” ]
CAIRO — With the country’s main political blocs locked in fierce confrontation, Egypt’s turmoil seemed likely to deepen on Friday as an opposition coalition rejected a dialogue proposed by President Mohamed Morsi and thousands of rival demonstrators poured into the streets after the noon prayer, a traditional time for protest.
As tanks and armored cars ringed the presidential palace, news reports quoted several leaders of the opposition coalition as saying they would not join the dialogue proposed by Mr. Morsi in a speech on Thursday in which he blamed the outbreak of violence on a “fifth column.” He also vowed to proceed with a referendum on an Islamist-backed constitution that has prompted deadly street battles between his supporters and their opponents.
Mr. Morsi, a former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, spoke a day after the growing antagonism between his supporters and the secular opposition triggered the worst outbreak of violence between political factions here since Gamal Abdel Nasser’s coup six decades ago. By the time the fighting ended, six people were dead and hundreds were wounded.
The violence also led to resignations that rocked the government, as advisers, party members and the head of the commission overseeing the planned vote on a new constitution stepped down, citing the bloodshed.
“The National Salvation Front is not taking part in the dialogue, that is the official stance,” Ahmed Said, a member of the coalition and head of the liberal Free Egyptians Party, told Reuters.
Several other prominent opposition figures, including Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said they would not participate.
In a message on Twitter, Mr. ElBaradei said the president’s offer “lacks the basics of real dialogue.”
“We are for dialogue that is not based on arm-twisting and imposing a fait accompli,” he said.
The sight of protesters on Cairo’s streets has been common since the beginnings of Egypt’s transition toward democracy that began with the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak last year.
In the latest protests, the target of the demonstrations has been the presidential palace in the wealthy suburb of Heliopolis, where protesters converged on Friday.
Since clashes there earlier this week, the elite presidential guard has ringed the palace with barbed wire, tanks and armored vehicles. After Mr. Morsi’s speech on Thursday, his opponents mocked his words and called for new demonstrations on Friday.
Some observers said the president speech echoed his predecessor, Mr. Mubarak, who always saw “hidden hands” behind public unrest. Mr. Morsi said that corrupt beneficiaries of Mr. 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 received a phone call on Thursday from President Obama, who expressed his “deep concern” about the deaths and injuries, 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 Mr. Morsi and the opposition leaders as failing to urge their supporters to pull back during the fight.
Prospects for 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 until the referendum — which he refused to do. And it demanded that the referendum be canceled, which he also refused.
The hostilities have threatened to undermine the legitimacy of the constitutional referendum with concerns about political coercion. The feasibility of holding the vote also appears uncertain amid attacks on Brotherhood offices around the country and open street fighting in the shadow of the presidential palace.
Though Mr. Morsi spoke of opening a door for dialogue and compromise, leaders of the opposition and the thousands of protesters surrounding his palace dismissed his conspiratorial saber rattling as an echo of Mr. Mubarak. And his tone, after violence many here view as a national tragedy, seemed only to widen the gulf between his Islamist supporters and their secular opponents over his efforts to push through the referendum on an Islamist-backed charter approved over the objections of other factions and the Coptic Christian church.
Outside the palace, demonstrators huddled around car radios to listen to Mr. Morsi’s words and mocked his efforts to blame outside infiltrators for the violence, which began when thousands of his Islamist supporters rousted an opposition sit-in.
“So we are the ones who attacked him, the ones who attacked the sit-in?” one protester asked sarcastically. “So we are the ones with the swords and weapons and money?” asked another.
Some left for the headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood, where a mob had broken in, looted offices, and made a bonfire out of the belongings of the group’s spiritual leader — until riot police officers chased them away with tear gas.
“I never thought I would say this, but even Mubarak was more savvy when he spoke in a time of crisis,” said Hossam Bahgat, executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.
The director of state broadcasting resigned Thursday, as did Rafik Habib, a Christian who was the vice president of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and the party’s favorite example of its commitment to tolerance and pluralism. Their departures followed an announcement Wednesday by Zaghoul el-Balshi, the new general secretary of the commission overseeing the planned constitutional referendum, that he was quitting. “I will not participate in a referendum that spills Egyptian blood,” Mr. Balshi said.
Mr. Morsi’s speech, previously set for 6 p.m. here and delayed for several hours, was his first effort to address the night of deadly violence and the underlying crisis set off by his Nov. 22 decree putting his own edicts above the review of any court until the ratification of a new constitution. He had said he needed those powers to protect the constitutional assembly and planned referendum. He has also said he wanted to head off interference by a counterrevolutionary conspiracy of corrupt businessmen and foreign enemies, cynical opposition leaders willing to derail democracy rather than let Islamists win elections, and the Mubarak-appointed judges who had already dissolved an earlier assembly and the democratically elected Parliament.
Each side of the political battle is now convinced that it faces an imminent coup. Secular groups believe Mr. Morsi is forcing through a constitution that will ultimately allow Islamist groups and religious leaders to wield new power. And the demands to stop the referendum have convinced Islamists that their secular opponents seek to abort the new democracy.
Advisers to Mr. Morsi say he has sought for days to find a way to reach out to his critics and resolve the building tension. In his speech, he offered to withdraw an article of his recent decree whose Orwellian language giving him ill-defined powers to protect the revolution had unnerved his opponents. He invited opposition and youth leaders to join him for a meeting at his palace at 12:30 p.m. on Saturday to try to hammer out some compromise, suggesting certain elements of the draft charter might be revised. And he declared that even if the constitution failed he would relinquish his emergency powers at the referendum on Dec. 15.
But opposition leaders dismissed his offers as all but meaningless. Their main objection to Mr. Morsi’s decree is the more essential article removing the judicial check on his power. They said that his proposed dialogue would take place on the first day of overseas voting on the new constitution, giving the meeting little chance of changing the text or the schedule. And the text of the draft constitution, if approved as expected, would already end his emergency powers.
Mr. ElBaradei, the former diplomat now acting as coordinator of the secular opposition, said Mr. Morsi’s refusal to postpone the referendum until there was consensus on a new constitution had “closed the door to any dialogue.” He argued that the Morsi government’s failure to stop the previous night’s bloodshed had “made the authority lose its legitimacy.”
Nadine Sherif of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies said in a statement: “President Morsi had a choice to either bring the country together or tear it apart. Today it seems clear that he has made his decision and civil war seems looming.”
David D. Kirkpatrick reported from Cairo, and Alan Cowell from London. Two employees of The New York Times contributed reporting from Cairo.