Egypt town in mourning illustrates national rift

DAMANHOUR, Egypt Tue Nov 27, 2012 6:23am EST

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DAMANHOUR, Egypt (Reuters) - Islam Massoud's funeral laid bear the political feud in Egypt that caused his death.

It was mostly Muslim Brotherhood supporters who turned out to pay their respects to the teenager, killed in the Nile Delta town of Damanhour when he went out to support President Mohamed Mursi and the Islamist group that stands behind him.

Yet the streets surrounding the town square, where hundreds gathered for the 15-year-old's funeral, were festooned with banners proclaiming opposition to the Islamists.

Massoud's death on Sunday was the first fatality in a wave of protests and violence between Islamists and their opponents, set off by Mursi's decree last week expanding his powers temporarily and preventing court challenges to his decisions.

"No to the Brotherhood," said one banner, a slogan also written walls in Damanhour, 135 km (85 miles) north of Cairo. Watching the funeral on Monday, onlookers openly aired anti-Mursi feelings.

"Of course we are all very sad about the violence happening in our town and which led to the death of a boy," said Ahmed Kheirallah, 29, who was watching the funeral. "We reject all that. But we also reject Mursi's dictatorship decisions."

The crisis has exposed the divide between the newly empowered Brotherhood and other groups that fear what they see as the autocratic tendencies of the once outlawed group.

Opponents of Mursi rallied in Cairo's Tahrir Square for a fifth day on Tuesday, demanding that Mursi scrap the decree they say threatens Egypt with a new era of autocracy.

Police fired tear gas and organizers urged demonstrators not to clash with Interior Ministry forces. However, tensions eased slightly when the Brotherhood called off its own protest, lessening the risk of a confrontation between rival supporters.

RHETORIC GROWS MORE EXTREME

Egypt's best organized political force, the Brotherhood has rallied to Mursi's side. So too have more hardline Islamists who hope the president elected in June will keep his promise to implement Islamic laws.

In the opposition stand leftist, liberal and socialist groups that have been consistently beaten at the ballot box by the Islamists since Hosni Mubarak was toppled. They hope the current crisis will galvanize broader public support.

Leaders on both sides say protests must remain peaceful. Yet their rhetoric is growing more extreme, making it harder to keep tempers in check. Mursi's critics accuse him of becoming Egypt's new dictator, while the Islamists say their opponents are Mubarak loyalists, or "feloul".

Witnesses said Sunday evening's violence in Damanhour flared when several dozen protesters chanting anti-Mursi slogans approached the Brotherhood headquarters in the town square. Sensing an imminent attack, Brotherhood members including Massoud came out to defend the building.

A giant banner displaying Massoud's dead body and declaring him a martyr had been hung from the Brotherhood headquarters. He had been hit on the head with a club.

"A boy got killed for nothing. What is all this is for? What did the Brotherhood or the president do?" said Doaa Abdallah, a housewife and Brotherhood supporter who with other women marched separately from the men in the funeral procession.

"This is our president, our master, and we should all obey him. Those who engage in such violence are nothing but a group of feloul, thugs and Godless people," she said.

Mohamed Nassar, a member of a more hardline Islamist group, added: "The liberal opposition will do anything to stop Egypt from becoming what it should be and was always meant to be: an Islamic state."

Since Mubarak was ousted, non-Islamist parties have been struggling to get organized, helping the Brotherhood to do so well in the elections. But new political parties including one set up by leftist politician Hamdeen Sabahi say they are starting to make their presence felt.

Yousef Khaddam, an activist in Sabahi's movement, forecast a big turnout for the anti-Mursi rally in Cairo. "We are seeing a lot of support in Damanhour," he said.

(Writing by Tom Perry; editing by David Stamp)

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