Scuffles as Egyptians challenge Islamist president

CAIRO Fri Aug 24, 2012 1:39pm EDT

1 of 10. Supporters of Egypt's President Mohamed Mursi and anti-Mursi protesters throw stones at each other during clashes in Tahrir Square in Cairo August 24, 2012. Opponents of Mursi scuffled with his supporters on Friday during a demonstration that posed the first test of the Islamist leader's popularity on the street.

Credit: Reuters/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

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CAIRO (Reuters) - Opponents of Egypt's president scuffled with his supporters on Friday at a demonstration that was billed as a test of Mohamed Mursi's popularity on the street but which managed to muster only modest numbers against his rule.

After months of turmoil, Egypt's streets have become calmer since Mursi's June election that ended 60 years of rule by military men, a relief to Egyptians and the West, wary of instability in a nation that has a peace treaty with Israel.

But the president now faces the giant task of rebuilding a shattered economy and delivering better living standards to a nation of 82 million where swathes still live in dire poverty.

Egyptians had worried that Friday's protest against Mursi and his Muslim Brotherhood, flagged for several weeks, could turn violent and security was tight around the presidential palace and some other sites.

"Wake up Egyptian people. Don't fall for the Brotherhood," said Mahmoud, in his 50s, addressing about 200 people in Cairo's Tahrir Square. "Egypt is for all Egyptians, not only one group."

Rival groups of youths in the square hurled stones and bottles at each other, staging running battles in side streets. Some wielded sticks and charged opponents.

Dozens more scuffled in Ismailiya, east of Cairo, and in the northern city of Alexandria, where some vehicles had glass broken and sounds of shots were heard, witnesses said.

But there were quieter scenes in other areas of Cairo where most of Mursi's opponents gathered.

Total numbers across the capital and elsewhere were relatively modest, reaching around 2,000 rather than the sea of people who turned out to unseat Hosni Mubarak or who have gathered in other demonstrations since then.

Several liberal groups usually critical of the Brotherhood stayed away, including the April 6 youth movement that galvanized protests to oust Mubarak last year. Some said Mursi could not be judged just two months into office.

Activists behind the protest accused Mursi of seeking to monopolise power after he wrested back prerogatives in August that the military council, which had ruled Egypt for a year and a half after Mubarak's fall, had sought to retain for itself.

Yet, many now say it is time for the ballot box not the street to determine Egypt's future.

POLICE CORDON

"Respectable democratic countries elect a leader and then give him time to prove himself," said Sabr Salah, 47, despite not being a Mursi backer. "We must give Mursi a chance because he won the election. We can vote him out again next time."

Violence in Tahrir flared when witnesses heard shots. The Health Ministry reported that five people had been wounded in Tahrir, the state news agency said. The agency also reported a doctor at a temporary clinic in Tahrir saying he had treated four people including three with gunshot wounds who were taken to hospital nearby.

Elsewhere, police set up a cordon around the presidential palace to protect it from protesters who had gathered there. The army blocked a road to the Defence Ministry, where protesters and troops have clashed this year.

"We must call for a revolution against the Brotherhood," said Maha Salem, wearing a Muslim veil, at a protest near Cairo's Nasser City. "They want to take over the country for themselves. Egypt is a civilian state not an Islamist one."

The organizers, among them opposition politician Mohamed Abou Hamed, want an investigation into the funding of the Brotherhood, repressed by Mubarak during his 30-year rule but which has dominated the political scene since he was toppled.

In a morning headline, the daily Al Masry Al Youm called the demonstration "the first test for Mursi", who was sworn in on June 30 as Egypt's first president not drawn from army ranks.

April 6 said in a statement before the protest that it disagreed with the Brotherhood on many issues but added: "Does all that and more push us to issue a judgment now to burn the group's members or premises and exile them from the country?"

Ahmed Said, head of the Free Egyptians, another liberal group that stayed away, wrote on Facebook: "Those who want to bring down the Brotherhood should bring them down via elections."

Though some say he deserves more time, Mursi has still drawn criticism, including accusations that he has sought to muzzle the media. Two journalists face charges of insulting him.

Yet, some liberals back Mursi's early moves, such as his August 12 decision to dismiss top generals - who were seen as obstructing civilian rule - as well as his decision to cancel a decree that had given the army legislative power in the absence of the parliament, that the generals had dissolved based on a court order.

(Additional reporting by Omar Fahmy and Ashraf Fahim in Cairo, Yusri Mohamed in Ismailiya and Abdel Rahman Youssef in Alexandria; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Andrew Osborn)

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