CAIRO — Angry mobs of Islamists battled secular protesters with fists, rocks and Molotov cocktails in the streets around the presidential palace for hours Wednesday night in the first major outbreak of violence between political factions here since the revolt against then-President Hosni Mubarak began nearly two years ago.
Three senior advisers to Mr. Mubarak’s successor, Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first elected president, resigned during the clashes, blaming him for the bloodshed, and his prime minister implored both sides to pull back in order to make room for “dialogue.”
Periodic gunshot blasts could be heard at the front lines of the fight, and secular protesters displayed birdshot wounds and pellets. But it could not be determined whether riot police or Islamists or the opposition had fired the guns.
Many in both camps brandished makeshift clubs, and on the secular side a few carried machetes. By 11 p.m., more than 211 people had been injured, the health ministry said. Each side claimed that one of its own had been killed, spurring on the battle, although the authorities had not confirmed either death.
Riot police tried to fight off or break up the crowds with tear gas, but by about 9:30 p.m. the security forces had all but withdrawn. They continued to try to separate the two sides across one boulevard but stayed out of the battle that raged on all around.
In a city square on the Islamist side of the battle lines, a loudspeaker on the top of a moving car blared out exhortations that the fight was about more than politics or Mr. Morsi.
“This is not a fight for an individual, this is not a fight for President Morsi,” the speaker declared. “We are fighting for God’s law, against the secularists and liberals.”
Even after two years of periodic battles between protesters and police, Egyptians said they were shocked and alarmed by the spectacle of fellow citizens drawing blood over matters of ideology or political power.
It was the strongest manifestation yet of the distrust and animosity between Islamists and their secular opponents that have cast doubt on the outcome of Egypt’s promised transition to democracy.
It also raised new questions about Mr. Morsi’s attempt to hold a referendum on Dec. 15 to approve a draft constitution approved by his Islamist allies over the objections of his secular opposition and the Coptic Christian church. The clashes followed two weeks of rising tension since Mr. Morsi, a former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood movement, seized temporary powers beyond the review of any court, removing the last check on his authority until ratification of the new constitution.
Mr. Morsi has said he needed the expanded powers to block a conspiracy by the Mubarak loyalists, the judges appointed by the former president and some political opponents to thwart Egypt’s transition to a constitutional democracy. Their goal, Mr. Morsi has said, is to stop the Islamists from winning elections.
His secular critics have accused Mr. Morsi and the Islamists of seeking to establish a new dictatorship, in part by ramming through a rushed constitution that they charge could ultimately give new power over society to Muslim scholars and Islamists groups. And each side’s actions have confirmed the other’s fears.
On Wednesday, the Islamists who struck the first blow, in retaliation for a secular demonstration the previous night. Tens of thousands of secular protesters had marched on the presidential palace Tuesday night, and perhaps 100 had set up tents to begin a sit-in just outside the palace walls. Though mostly peaceful, there were isolated episodes of violence, including the looting of a guard house, and protesters had written graffiti insulting Mr. Morsi on the palace walls.
In response, a new Islamist coalition, including the Muslim Brotherhood and several ultraconservative groups, issued a statement denouncing the protesters’ “disgusting practices,” and accusing them of “violence or sabotage.” The groups warned that “the alert masses of the Egyptian people are capable of defending legitimacy and defending the gains of their glorious revolution.” They called their own demonstration for Wednesday afternoon outside of the palace.
When thousands of Islamists began arriving at the tent camp around 4 p.m., a tense standoff quickly turned into a rout as they chased the secular protesters, tearing down their tents and beating those who resisted, according to witnesses and videos. “They came attacking anyone who opposed them,” said Mohamed Ismail, 28, a coffee shop clerk who was among the protesters. “I got slapped on the face and the back of my head.”
Mohamed Ali, 34, a carpenter and one of the Islamists who uprooted the tents, claimed they had found alcohol, marijuana and treats like apples and other fruit inside. He said they had come to defend democracy and Mr. Morsi’s authority. “He should be supported by anyone who supports democracy,” Mr. Ali said.
A few hours later, large groups of secular protesters began to arrive, and Mr. Ali said they had pelted the Islamists with rocks and empty water bottles. “We acted in self-defense,” Mr. Ali said.
Soon the battle was raging throughout the streets around the palace. Several liberal protesters said that the riot police had sided with the Islamists, or that the Islamists had somehow acquired tear gas and police birdshot. “They have weapons and we have only rocks,” one said, rushing toward the front with an armful.
But other protesters said the police had sought from the start to separate the two sides, and it seemed possible that at least at the start, the police and the Islamists were both aiming in the same direction, away from the palace.