CAIRO: Protesters denouncing Egypt's Islamist president hurled stones and firebombs through the gates of his palace gates on Friday, clashing with security forces who fired tear gas and water cannons, as more than a week of political violence came to Mohammed Morsi's symbolic doorstep for the first time.
The march on the palace in an upscale district of the capital was part of a wave of demonstrations in cities around the country called by
opposition politicians, trying to wrest concessions from Morsi after around 60 people were killed in protests, clashes and riots.
But many of the protesters go further, saying he must be removed from office, accusing his Muslim Brotherhood of monopolizing power and failing to deal with the country's mounting woes. Many have been further angered by Morsi's praise of the security forces after the high death toll, which is widely blamed on excessive use of force by the police.
The day's unrest, however, risked boosting attempts by the government and Brotherhood to taint the opposition as violent and destructive - a tack Morsi supporters have taken for weeks.
In a statement issued amid the clashes, Morsi said "political fores involved in incitement" are responsible for the violence and spoke of an investigation. He called on all factions to condemn what he called an attempt to break into the palace and said security forces would "act decisively to protect state institutions."
A day earlier, the top opposition figures met with the Brotherhood for the first time and agreed on a joint promise to avoid violence. That drew sharp criticism from many anti-Morsi activists who said the politicians had played into the Brotherhood's hands and given legitimacy to any crackdown.
The streets outside the presidential palace - where Morsi was not present - were a scene of mayhem after nightfall. Police fired dozens of volleys of tear gas at a time, pushing the crowds away from the palace gates. Flames leaped as security forces set fire to protest tents, sometimes by rolling tires that protesters had set ablaze into them. Young protesters hurled stones, banged on metal fences and threw fireworks, flashing laser pointers through the smoke.
"People are here for many reasons, but I came here because I want to get rid of this regime," said Ahmed Hamdi, an 18-year-old protester, who wore thick gloves so he could pick up tear gas canisters and throw them back at police.
He, like others, said he wanted "retribution" - punishment for police over protester deaths the past week and in previous clashes. "This is a matter of life and death for me," said Hamdi, who had a close friend killed in earlier clashes.
The fighting started when a crowd of several thousand marched to the palace, chanting, "the people want the fall of the regime," and "leave, leave, Morsi." Security forces allowed them to reach close to the main gate, and some protesters hurled shoes and stones through the fence into the grounds. At first, police and Republican Guards inside did not respond. But when several firebombs were thrown over the fence, the security forces unleashed water cannons, then tear gas, then riot police descended on the streets outside the palace.
After several hours, a huge barrage of tear gas sent protesters scattering and riot police pushed down side streets to chase them. The sound of birdshot being fired could be heard. More than 40 people were hurt in the clashes, according to security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press.
The turmoil was the first significant violence at the presidential palace in the eight-day wave of protests - though the site was the scene of clashes in November between anti-Morsi protesters and Islamists that left around 10 people dead. But other protests around the country on Friday did not see significant violence.
The unrest is Egypt's worst crisis since the 2011 fall of autocrat Hosni Mubarak. It was at its worst last weekend, when protests around the country marking the two-year anniversary of the anti-Mubarak uprising turned to clashes in many cities. It further exploded on Saturday, when residents of the Suez Canal city of Port Said rose up in fury over death sentences issued against local residents over a deadly soccer riot a year ago. Around 40 of the deaths in the crisis came in Port Said when security forces reportedly opened fire on protesters, some of whom attacked police facilities.
Morsi, who came into office in June as Egypt's first freely elected president, responded by trying a heavy hand. He imposed a state of emergency and curfews in Port Said and two other Canal cities, which responded with near open revolt. Clashes and protests continued around the country, with anti-Morsi crowds blocking railroad tracks and marching through the streets. The turmoil has only hiked opposition criticism that Morsi, and the Brotherhood, which forms the backbone of his leadership, are unable to manage the country.
Morsi's aides and the Brotherhood, in turn, have accused the opposition of using the streets and condoning violence in an attempt to overturn the results of elections that Islamists have won repeatedly, securing their power.
They have tried to link the political opposition to a group of protesters called the Black Bloc, who wear black masks and have vowed to "defend the revolution." Officials and state media depict them as conspiratorial saboteurs, but the opposition says authorities are using the group as a scapegoat to justify a crackdown.
On Friday, thousands of residents marched through Port Said, located at the Suez Canal's Mediterranean end, pumping their fists and chanting, "Leave, leave, Morsi." They massed around the city's main security headquarters, but no clashes or violence was reported.
"The people want the Republic of Port Said," protesters chanted, voicing a wide sentiment among residents that they are fed up of negligence and mistreatment by central government and that they want to virtual independence.
Egypt's main opposition political grouping, the National Salvation Front, called for Friday's protests, demanding Morsi form a national unity government and amend the constitution. They say the unrest reflects the widespread discontent over Brotherhood attempts to rule alone and keep decision-making in its own hands.
"The policies of the president and the Muslim Brotherhood are pushing the country to the brink," the opposition said in a statement.
But there were signs of splits and confusion in the opposition ranks after leaders of the Front met for the first time with the Brotherhood as part of a dialogue hosted by Egypt's premier Islamic institution, Al-Azhar. The Front had previously refused talks with the Brotherhood until its conditions were met.
With Front leader Mohamed ElBaradei and the deputy leader of the Brotherhood at the same table, the gathering of a spectrum of politicians signed a joint statement denouncing violence.
The statement, known as the Al-Azhar Document, angered some in the anti-Morsi camp. It seemed to focus on violence by protesters with no mention of excessive force by police or the wider political issues.
"Al-Azhar's initiative talks too broadly about violence," a group of 70 activists, liberal politicians, actors and writers said in a statement criticizing the meeting. They said the document gives "political cover to expand the repression, detention, killing and torture by the hands of police for the authority's benefit."
The document "didn't offer solutions but came to give more legitimacy to the existing authority," it added.
Those who attended the Thursday's meeting defended the anti-violence initiative.
"We toppled down Mubarak regime with a peaceful revolution. We insist on achieving the goals the same way whatever the sacrifices and the
barbaric suppression tactics," ElBaradei wrote in a tweet.
"No one can say no to an initiative to stop violence," said Ahmed Said, an opposition party leader.