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Middle East

In Cairo, questions about who threw first stone

Violent clashes between constitutional protestors and the Muslim Brotherhood left seven dead in Cairo. It's not clear who instigated the fighting, but whatever the case, President Morsi is under increasing pressure.

The area around the presidential palace could easily be confused for a war-zone. The streets have been littered with stones thrown throughout the last few days. As thousands of people weave past, young men hold on to planks of wood and iron bars as weapons of defense. Stress fills the air.

Closer to the front line, where the Muslim Brotherhood face the demonstrators, the mutilated wreck of a car stands alone. Tear-gas canisters can be heard, but also live ammunition. On the second floor of a frontline corner building, young Egyptians climb the façade and force their way into a doctor's office. Shortly thereafter they lob Molotov cocktails from the window.

A hundred yards away, 10 ambulances stand ready. Their doors are open so that the injured can be dealt with immediately. Four men run toward the vehicles carrying a young man with blood running down his face. "So far it's mostly been rubber bullets, munitions and tear gas," said an on-duty doctor named Emad.

Sticks and stones

A handful of people stand next to an orange and white ambulence in the night time (Photo: Matthias Sailer, Journalist, Political Scientist)

Not just sticks and stones: paramedics are seeing wounds from live munition

The clashes began very early Thursday morning. A group of demonstrators - the remainders of a peaceful protest against Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi from the day before - were camping near the palace. Eye-witnesses and journalists reported Muslim Brotherhood supporters armed with sticks brutally attacked the handful of protestors.

Karim El-Beheiry was involved in one of the early attacks. "We were demonstrating behind the palace and discussing the constitution. We noticed that they were coming from two directions to pinch us in. Then they attacked."

On television and radio, the Muslim Brotherhood claims just the opposite. Witnesses also report Molotov cocktails flying in both directions.

Whether Morsi's government is involved in any way is a question many are trying to answer. Supporters of President Morsi's majority party, the Muslim Brotherhood, clearly took part. Yet it is possible - and even likely, given the governmnet's response - that a handful of extremists were acting without government approval.

After the Thursday attack government tanks were rushed into the square to ensure that the clashing groups would be kept away from one another, avoiding further violence. President Morsi also ordered both the protestors and the Muslim Brotherhood to leave the site by the afternoon.

'President Mursi isn't fighting for freedom'

Regardless of who started the attack, it appears the timing was chosen carefully. It took place while Egyptian Vice President Mahmud Mekki was stating during a press conference that every Egyptian citizen had a right to freedom of opinion. The speech came on the heels of a December 5 demonstration by television and print media organizations against the Egyptian constitution. During the conference Mekki said that the contested constitutional articles could be amended when the newly elected parliament meets for their first session.

An early-30s Egyptian man talks to a man just off camera during the night-time. (Photo: Matthias Sailer, Journalist, Political Scientist)

Karim El-Beheiry was one of the protestors near the palace

As Mekki spoke these words, however, the Muslim Brotherhood was descending on the remaining demonstrators. The violence - and a perception by demonstrators that the government is not upholding its promises to reform - has added to suspicions about President Morsi's agenda.

"President Morsi isn't fighting for freedom. He's fighting to make the entire country a Muslim Brotherhood state," said Karim El-Beheiry.

A short while later a second press conference took place. Former presidential candidates Hamdien Sabbahy and Amr Moussa announced that their opposition parties would unify against the Islamists under the leadership of Mohamed El-Baradei. El-Baradei qualified the move by saying that his party would not be calling for the fall of the current government. They will, however, be pushing in that direction.

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