Egyptian Islamists, Opponents Clash Ahead of Vote

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(AP) — Thousands of Islamists clashed with their opponents on Friday in Egypt’s second largest city, Alexandria, a day before the second leg of voting on a proposed constitution that has deeply polarized the nation.

Riot police swung batons and fired volleys of tear gas to separate the stone-throwing crowds, made up of Muslim Brotherhood members and ultraconservative Salafis on one side, and youthful protesters on the other. The clashes started when the two groups met just after Friday afternoon prayers near the city’s main mosque.

The demonstrators, some of whom carried black Islamic battle flags, withdrew from the mosque area under a heavy cloud of tear gas some two hours after the clashes began. Fighting continued along the coastal road of the Mediterranean city, near the Medical School and famed Bibliotheca Alexandrina.

At least 42 people were being treated for injuries, with some rushed to the hospital, a city health official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief reporters.

It was unclear who started the fight. Islamists had called for a big rally outside the Qaed Ibrahim mosque, and some 20 liberal political parties had said they would not hold a rival gathering to avoid clashes.

Security forces had cordoned off streets leading to the mosque as throngs of Salafi Islamists, most wearing the long beards favored by the movement, gathered for what they called “the million-man rally to defend clerics and mosques.” Some chanted “God is Great,” and warned opponents: “with blood and soul, we redeem Islam.”

The rally was called in response to violence last week, when a well-known Alexandrian Salafi cleric, Sheik Ahmed el-Mahalawi, was trapped inside a mosque for 12 hours while his supporters battled rock-throwing opponents outside with swords and firebombs.

El-Mahalawi, 87, had stirred anger with a sermon in which he denounced opponents of the Islamist-friendly draft charter as “followers of heretics.” He denied that in a sermon on Friday, accusing the media of spreading “lies,” and claiming that last week’s clashes were meant to prevent voting on the constitutional referendum.

The final round of voting on the disputed charter is to be completed Saturday in the remaining 17 of Egypt’s 27 provinces.

Critics charge that the Islamist-dominated body that wrote the draft document did not represent all Egyptians. Liberal and Christian members quit the assembly to protest clauses and articles they say were rammed through by hardline members aiming to create a religious state.

The opposition National Salvation Front reiterated its call on Friday for voters to oppose the document, and one of the group’s leaders, Mohamed ElBaradei, urged President Mohamed Morsi to suspend the referendum and form a new constituent assembly.

With election authorities, army and police preparing for Saturday’s voting however, ElBaradei’s televised message looked unlikely to shift Morsi’s position.

“If this constitution passed, there will be no stability,” said Baradei, a Nobel Laureate and Egypt’s leading pro-democracy advocate.

The first round of voting was held in 10 provinces last Saturday, including in Egypt’s biggest cities, Cairo and Alexandria. Turnout was low, around 32 percent, and unofficial results showed around 56 percent of voters cast a “yes” vote in support of the constitution. Rights groups and the opposition immediately filed complaints alleging irregularities.

Controversy over the proposed constitution has in the past month plunged Egypt into political turmoil unprecedented since the February 2011 ouster of Hosni Mubarak, the longtime authoritarian and secular-minded ruler.

The draft has split the country into two camps. On one side are the Islamists from the country’s most organized group, The Muslim Brotherhood, from which President Mohammed Morsi hails, and their backers from various Salafi and former Jihadist groups.

The opposition camp, led by the National Salvation Front, is an alliance of liberal parties and youth groups backed by Christians and moderate Muslims who fear the Brotherhood’s attempts to monopolize power by passing a constitution that enshrines a greater role for clerics and Islamic law.

Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians from both sides have rallied in the streets over the past month. The crisis peaked when Brotherhood supporters attacked an opposition sit-in outside the presidential palace in Cairo on Dec. 5. The ensuing violence left at least 10 dead and hundreds of injured on both sides.

The crisis was compounded by Morsi’s decision to rush the draft constitution to a referendum after an Islamist-dominated panel approved it, as well as his move last month to grant himself near-absolute powers, which were later rescinded.

Morsi’s moves have also split state institutions. The judiciary became another battleground, with the powerful Judges’ Club calling on its members to boycott the vote while Brotherhood sympathizers in the legal system and other independents insisted on supervising it.

Egyptian prosecutors held a sit-in protest to press Morsi-appointed prosecutor general Talaat Abdullah to resign on Monday. Abdullah resigned, then retracted his resignation on Thursday, raising the prospect of new protests by fellow prosecutors.

Also, Zaghloul el-Balshi, the secretary general of the election committee who is also a judge and an aid to the country’s justice minister, resigned Wednesday, citing health reasons. The media said his resignation was prompted by his inability to prevent voting violations in the first leg of the referendum.

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