Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi on Thursday blamed two weeks of political turmoil that have engulfed his nation on “paid elements,” and he refused to make any concessions to his opponents in a late-night televised speech that for some was reminiscent of one of toppled leader Hosni Mubarak’s last public presentations.
Rather than mollify his opponents, the speech agitated them and sparked scenes that were eerily similar to events in the days leading to Mubarak’s fall.
As Morsi spoke, protesters who were gathered outside the presidential palace became increasingly angry, their chants of “Leave! Leave! Leave! Leave!” growing louder, much as happened when Mubarak first addressed the nation on Feb. 1, 2011, after a week of protests. In that speech, Mubarak said that hired “political forces” were inciting the crowds.
After Morsi spoke, protesters set several Muslim Brotherhood headquarters on fire, including the one in Cairo. Two years earlier, protesters set Mubarak’s party headquarters ablaze; the charred building still stands unrepaired.
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For Morsi opponents, the speech was a sign that Morsi was unwilling to entertain their complaints that he had become a dictator just five months after the nation’s first democratic election had elevated him to the presidency. They vowed to continue their protests.
“This was the speech of a dictator,” said Mohamed Radwan, 33, an engineer who was among those protesting outside the palace. “He only spoke to his” supporters.
Opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei, responding to the speech, said Morsi’s government had lost its legitimacy after violence Wednesday outside the presidential palace left six people dead and hundreds injured. “It is now difficult to negotiate after innocent blood was shed,” ElBaradei said in a statement released to a private television station.
Within the government, resignations continued coming. A Christian adviser and the director of state broadcasting stepped down in opposition, joining three Morsi advisers who resigned on Wednesday.
President Barack Obama, in a phone call to Morsi, expressed “deep concern about the deaths and injuries of protesters in Egypt,” the White House said. In a statement, the White House added that Obama “emphasized that all political leaders . . . should make clear to their supporters that violence is unacceptable” and that negotiations should take place “without preconditions.”
“It is essential for Egyptian leaders across the political spectrum to put aside their differences and come together to agree on a path that will move Egypt forward,” the statement said.
Morsi’s speech was a skein of seeming contradictions. He appeared to reach out to opponents, inviting them to meet with him on Saturday. But at the same time he promised no compromise.
"I cannot compromise because my enemies have not yet been vanquished," he said.
At another point, he made it clear that he believed his legitimacy flowed from his election to the presidency and that those whose candidates lost should let him govern. “I won’t tolerate anyone working to overthrow a legitimate government,” he said.
Still, he urged opponents to talk and said that everyone is free to vote against the proposed constitution in the referendum he’s set for Dec. 15. If the constitution is defeated, Morsi would then appoint a new constitutional assembly to draft another document.
"I will meet with legal experts and opposition figures on Saturday at 12:30 p.m. at the presidential headquarters to come up with a solution to save the nation,” he said.
But who was invited and what could come of such talks was not clear. ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency and Nobel Peace Prize winner who on Wednesday was named the leader of the opposition, said he would not attend.
The current crisis began Nov. 22, when Morsi declared that his decisions could not be reviewed by the country’s judges. It continued when the constitutional assembly, which is dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, hastily completed a draft document before a court ruling could have dissolved the assembly. Morsi quickly approved the document and set Dec. 15 for the country to vote on it.
Since then, the opposition has called for Morsi to delay the referendum until a more representative body can craft a new version. Liberals, secularists and Christians had withdrawn from the assembly.
After several demonstration and counterdemonstrations, the crisis reached its most violent moments Wednesday when rival protesters set upon one another with rocks, firebombs and gunshots outside the presidential palace.
On Thursday, Morsi said that an investigation into the clashes had yielded 80 arrests and found that “paid elements” were involved.
That claim worried opponents who said they feared their leaders – former presidential candidates Hamdeen Sabahi and Amr Moussa, along with ElBaradei – would be rounded up in the days ahead as suspected instigators.
In describing the agitators, Morsi said: “These people became rich through the ex-regime and are now spending their fortunes to burn our homeland.”
At one point, Morsi blamed the protests for tying up traffic in Cairo, a city notorious for traffic jams, though the claim seemed unrealistic – the streets of the city have been uncommonly empty this past week as residents stayed inside, fearful of the protests, fires and street fighting.
Thursday morning, Egypt’s elite Republican Guard deployed troops and tanks near the presidential palace, and police had been stationed around the palace. Graffiti that demonstrators had painted on the palace walls had been hurriedly painted over.
The president called for demonstrators to leave the presidential compound area, and most of Morsi’s supporters appeared to have obeyed.
But after Morsi’s speech, the opposition pledged to turn out large numbers of protesters on Friday in rallies scheduled for Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the turmoil that led to Mubarak’s fall nearly two years ago.
Ismail is a McClatchy special correspondent.