Cairo: Several hundred Egyptian protesters breached a concrete and metal barricade outside the presidential palace in Cairo on Tuesday, forcing back the soldiers manning it, AFP correspondents reported.
There was no violent confrontation despite the tensions surrounding the determination of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi to press ahead with a Saturday referendum on a controversial new constitution drafted by a panel dominated by his Islamist allies.
The protesters pulled apart a high metal gate bar by bar and toppled concrete blocks with chains.
Hundreds of soldiers who had erected the barrier at the weekend, to block access roads following deadly clashes in the area last week, fell back closer to the palace. Six tanks were stationed close to the walled compound.
A counter-demonstration by Morsi supporters was taking place a few kilometres (miles) away, raising fears of further clashes.
On Wednesday last week, pro- and anti-Morsi demonstrators fought each other with metal bars, petrol bombs and handguns, leaving seven people dead and more than 600 injured.
Morsi on Monday ordered the army to use temporary police powers to protect the palace and other “vital state institutions”.
The military, which is trying to remain neutral in Egypt’s three-week-old political crisis, has vowed to carry out its duty to maintain stability within democratic rules.
The opposition, made up of secular, leftwing and liberal groups, sees the draft text as weakening human rights, the rights of women and religious minorities.
Egyptian human rights groups issued a statement saying the draft constitution “opens the door to the establishment of a theocratic system similar to the Iranian ‘Velayat-e Faqih’ model,” or rule by a clerical supreme leader.
The UN human rights chief and international watchdogs have criticised the draft charter and the way it was drawn up.
Morsi’s supporters, however, argue that it is now up to Egypt’s voters to decide in the referendum.
Michael Wahid Hanna, a political analyst at US thinktank The Century Foundation told AFP that, as things stood, there was a good chance of the referendum passing.
He cautioned, though, that “I don’t take it as an absolute certainty, as there is more fluidity in the Egypt electorate than we give it credit for.”
If the draft charter is adopted, Hanna warned, “I fear they are going to have an institutionalised crisis” that would polarise Egypt in the long term and “raises the spectre of violence.”
The United States, which gives billions of dollars in aid to Egypt’s military, has called for the protests over the referendum to remain peaceful.
On Monday, after a meeting with Morsi, Egypt’s defence minister and commander of the armed forces, General Abel-Fattah al-Sisi, called on army officers to exercise the “highest levels of self-restraint”.
He said the armed forces were determined to “carry out their role in protecting the nation and its stability regardless of pressures and challenges”.
But Emad Gad, an Egyptian political analyst, said: “In the event there are violent clashes or especially if blood is spilt in the street, the army will certainly intervene.”
He said there was even a potential the army might have to seize political control again, to maintain order and security.
The prolonged crisis has intensified uncertainty over Egypt’s economy triggered by the revolution early last year that overthrew autocratic president Hosni Mubarak.
The International Monetary Fund on Tuesday said a proposed $4.8 billion loan is on hold at the request of Egyptian authorities in view of the volatile situation.
The IMF and Egyptian authorities provisionally agreed the loan last month and the IMF’s executive board had been expected to review the deal this month.
The loan is aimed at helping the government to bridge financing shortfalls through fiscal 2013-2014 as the country rebuilds a battered post-revolution economy.