'This Is Just the Beginning': A Bloody Night With Egypt's Protesters

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Amid bullets and flames, opposition activists clash with regime supporters over President Morsi's attempted expansion of executive authority.

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An anti-Morsi protester attempts to pick up a tear gas canister thrown by riot police during clashes in front of the presidential palace in Cairo. (Amr Dalsh/Reuters)

The blast echoed from somewhere near the front lines. A fragment -- probably a shotgun pellet -- ricocheted into Muhammad Abdel Aziz's face. He flinched and touched his cheek -- no wound, this time. Earlier, three or four had gashed his chin and swelled one side of his jaw, spattering his striped shirt with blood.

Shouts, explosions and gunfire echoed from all around the glass-carpeted streets. In an alley, Abdel Aziz found shelter from the chaos that had engulfed the neighborhood surrounding Egypt's presidential palace. He had come to protest against President Mohamed Morsi and was treated in a field clinic -- a café on normal days -- after being shot.

The Democracy Report

Drums of the president's opponents signaled their approach, and the two sides whipped rocks back and forth over a thin rank of riot police. Now behind the pro-Morsi lines and wary not to betray his feelings to the Islamist partisans thronging the road, Abdel Aziz, a tall, rotund, and gray-haired securities trader, confided quietly that he thought the Muslim Brotherhood was dragging Egypt down Iran's path to theocracy. "This is just the beginning," he said.

It was Wednesday night, just four days after Egypt's constituent assembly had rushed a draft constitution to completion in the face of nearly two-dozen walkouts. Protesters had been filling Tahrir Square for nearly two weeks since Morsi had declared himself and the assembly temporarily immune from judicial oversight . But the new constitution, written primarily by Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood and hardline Salafi allies, had swelled the protest's ranks on Tuesday to over 100,000 in Tahrir and, for the first time, outside the presidential palace.

By Wednesday afternoon, thousands of Morsi supporters had responded to the Brotherhood's call for a march to the palace. Dozens of protesters opposed to Morsi and the recent efforts to ram through the new constitution were still camped there after the massive Tuesday rally. It was the first time the Brotherhood had ordered its supporters into confrontation with the opposition after twice canceling or relocating marches for fear of violence. The result was a disaster.

Shortly after afternoon prayer, Morsi's supporters marched down Nadi Street in front of the palace, pushing aside the protesters' barricades. They threw stones and splashed water on women, witnesses said. Men tore down tents and ransacked food supplies while chanting Morsi's name, video showed. The crowd -- almost entirely Brotherhood members, Salafis, and other Islamist sympathizers -- occupied the street and painted over revolutionary graffiti on the palace walls.

These protesters argued that Morsi, as an elected president, had the right to issue the controversial decrees that placed himself and the assembly above judicial review. He was building Egypt's modern democracy in the face of corrupt state institutions, they said. They complained that the opposition protesters were funded and supplied with "expensive" goods by members of Hosni Mubarak's former regime. They claimed the Mubarak holdovers had allied with post-revolution opposition icons such as Mohamed ElBaradei and Hamdeen Sabahi to sabotage the Brotherhood.

News spread quickly that the opposition camp had been overrun. Morsi's supporters arranged barricades and piles of rocks, anticipating that crowds would return. Within a few hours, they did.

At around 6:30 p.m., Nadi Street erupted. Outside the posh Heliopolis Club, near the palace's front gate, Molotov cocktails thrown by the arriving opposition protesters exploded. Morsi's supporters, greater in number, charged forward and hurled rocks, shouting "God is great!" Opposition protesters, who later said the Morsi fighters were wielding shotguns, retreated into the wide intersection of Al Khalifa Al Maamoun Street.

Dozens of explosions and gunshots rang out from the front, where smoke and swirling dust filled the air over the heads of hundreds of men on two front lines separated by less than 200 feet. Rocks flew, and witnesses said both sides carried firearms. Molotov cocktails thrown by opposition fighters exploded in gusts of flame. Morsi's supporters rushed down darkened side alleys to flush out the protesters. Men screamed for reinforcements, waving their arms. The crowd chanted, "With our soul, our blood, we'll sacrifice for you Islam!"

Pro-Morsi fighters carried back several wounded men, some clutching bandages to bleeding head wounds. Others dragged captured opponents, beating them savagely with sticks and fists before others convinced them to stop. One beaten man lay on the street surrounded by a mob, his eyes lolling dumbly side-to-side in his swollen face, illuminated by cell phones held overhead. The group lifted him and carried him toward the palace.

Residents caught behind the lines watched from barricaded shop fronts and a gas station rooftop. A woman 10 floors above threw a glass bottle at Morsi supporters from her balcony, as a neighborhood man asked for directions to a nearby square to find his injured brother. "Look what the Muslim Brotherhood do to us," he said.

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Evan Hill is a former staff writer for Al Jazeera America.

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