Calm was restored to Egypt yesterday after a mass overnight protest against Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi ended peacefully, but the underlying political crisis dividing the country persisted.
More than 100 protesters remained outside the presidential palace in Cairo, watched over by soldiers who used tanks and barbed wire to block roads leading to the compound.
Overnight, more than 10,000 people had massed in the palace square in a noisy demonstration, tearing aside a barbed-wire barricade and yelling for Morsi to step down.
The crowd gradually dwindled to a hard core of protesters, repeating a pattern of nightly protests this week that peaked each evening.
However, there was no sign of protesters faltering in their opposition to the Islamist president and the sweeping new powers he decreed for himself last month, or to a controversial draft constitution Morsi is putting to a referendum he has called for Saturday.
“I’m ready to die. All these guys are ready to die. I don’t want violence, but if they try to oppress us, there has to be a stand,” said one protester who camped out overnight, Mustafa el-Tabbal, 27.
Although about 2,000 Morsi supporters from the president’s Muslim Brotherhood held a rival rally just a few kilometers away, there was no repeat of the violent clashes between the two sides of Wednesday night, when seven people died and more than 640 were hurt.
Since the clashes, Morsi has struck a defiant tone, defending his decree and the referendum.
However, his camp has also made some conciliatory gestures to the mainly secular opposition, seen as attempts to de-escalate the confrontation.
Morsi offered to hold talks with the opposition yesterday, but that was rebuffed by the National Salvation Front coalition ranged against him.
One of the Front’s leaders, Mohamed ElBaradei, a former UN atomic agency chief and Nobel Peace laureate, said late on Friday that dialogue could only happen if Morsi agreed to “repeal the decree” and postpone the referendum.
Egyptian Vice President Mahmud Mekki said Morsi “could accept to delay the referendum,” but only if the opposition guaranteed it would launch no legal challenge to the decision.
Under Egyptian law, a president is compelled to hold a referendum two weeks after formally being delivered its text.
Mekki said early voting for Egyptians overseas that had been scheduled for yesterday had now been pushed back to Wednesday.
Also yesterday, the Cairo prosecutors’ office said that all 133 people arrested during Wednesday’s clashes had been released.
The state newspaper al-Ahram said in yesterday’s edition that there was “an opening in the constitutional crisis.”
However, the independent newspaper al-Masry al-Youm ran the headline: “The protesters held up a ‘red card’ to the president in front of the presidential palace.”
The opposition fears Morsi’s “power grab” and referendum aim to push the country toward a more Islamic state, based on the slender mandate he won in a June election.
Their slogans and mobilization recalled the uprising that toppled Egypt’s autocratic leader of 30 years, former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, early last year.
Morsi’s backers in the Muslim Brotherhood, in turn, fear that judiciary, with its many Mubarak-era appointees, is plotting to block the reforms they are trying to push through.