Tanks deploy to Egypt's presidential palace amid lull in deadly protests

The deployment of Egyptian tanks marks the first time since Mohamed Morsi's power grab that the military has gotten involved.

Nasser Nasser/AP
An Egyptian Army officer detains a man who was attacked by protesters gathering near the presidential palace while the army deploys to secure the site of overnight clashes between supporters and opponents of President Mohammed Morsi, in Cairo, Egypt, Thursday, Dec. 6, 2012.

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After a night of violent protests across Egypt that left at least five dead and hundreds injured, Egyptian tanks deployed this morning to protect the presidential palace, marking the first time since Mohamed Morsi's power grab that the military has gotten involved.

Reuters reports that at least seven tanks and 10 armored personnel carriers from the Republican Guard, the military unit tasked with protecting the government organs, now surround the palace. The Republican Guard is ordering all demonstrators to leave the palace environs. The unit's commander, Gen. Mohamed Zaki, told the state news agency that "The armed forces, and at the forefront of them the Republican Guard, will not be used as a tool to oppress the demonstrators." 

Reuters notes that small numbers of protesters against and supporters of President Morsi remain in the area around the palace, but have largely been limited to shouting at each other from afar.

The lull stands in sharp contrast to last night, when thousands of Egyptians from both sides took to the streets and engaged in violent clashes, resulting in several deaths – Agence France-Presse reports that five people were killed, while Reuters puts the toll at seven – and hundreds of injuries. The Monitor reported last night that protesters and supporters clashed with rocks, firebombs, and the occasional gun around the palace, in a conflict that both sides see as an extension of the Tahrir Square protests last year that toppled President Hosni Mubarak.

Pavement is broken up into makeshift missiles, Molotov cocktails are thrown, and fireworks are fired horizontally at the other side. At one point, a protester runs through the anti-Morsi crowd shooting in the air with a handgun. The pro-Morsi crowd appears to be firing teargas canisters, something usually reserved for the police forces....

There is nothing uplifting about the mood here tonight, which seems eons away from the jubilant crowds in Tahrir on Feb. 11, 2011, the night Mubarak stepped down. Just before the fighting started, the crowd beat up a salafi passerby (a conservative Muslim), despite his protestations that he was “not with the Brotherhood.” A minivan stuck in traffic was attacked on the suspicion that it was carrying Muslim Brotherhood supporters.

If any comparisons are made with the uprising that brought down Mubarak last year, it is with the infamous “Camel Day,” when Mubarak supporters and police attacked the peaceful pro-democracy protestors in Tahrir Square.

The Monitor noted that Essam al-Arian, head of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, last night on Al Jazeera called the protests “the last battle of the revolution against the counterrevolution.”

A presidential aide told AFP that Morsi would address the current crisis in a speech later today, though no time was given. But as the Monitor's Dan Murphy wrote last night, there have been no indications from Morsi or the Brotherhood that they are backing down from plans to hold a referendum on the rushed, Islamist constitution on Dec. 15.

Egypt's sputtering transition from a military-backed, secular dictatorship to, well, something else, has now hit its rockiest point in the nearly two years since it began. Morsi's spokesman and backers have not offered any specific compromise. His Vice President Mahmoud Makki today addressed the nation, saying a referendum scheduled for Dec. 15 will move forward. Gehad el-Haddad, a senior adviser for the Freedom and Justice Party, the Brotherhood's political wing, summarized Mr. Makki's remarks as "No moving of Referendum date, no cancellation of Constitutional Declaration. Crowds do not dictate course of country, elected bodies do." ...

Michael Hanna at The Century Foundation is worried, and fears that Morsi has been emboldened by his successful role in brokering a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel last month. 

"If approved in a hastily called referendum, that slipshod [constitution] will bound Egypt's political future and institutionalize its crisis. With a significant portion of the country's judges declaring a strike in response to Morsy's declaration and dueling protesters mobilizing on opposing sides, Egypt's flawed transition now risks tipping into outright civil strife and prolonged instability," he writes. "Rather than using his burnished reputation as a regional leader to forge a more consensual and stable transition back home, Morsy capitalized on the favorable international political climate by making an untenable and unjustifiable power grab that has plunged Egypt into crisis."

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