Cairo - Opponents of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi scuffled with his supporters on Friday during a demonstration that posed the first test of the Islamist leader's popularity on the street.
Egyptians had been nervous that Friday's anti-Mursi protest, flagged for several weeks, could turn violent and security was tight around the presidential palace and some other sites.
In Cairo's Tahrir Square, rival groups of youths hurled stones and bottles at each other, staging running battles in side streets. Some wielded sticks and charged opponents. Dozens also scuffled in Ismailiya, east of Cairo, a witness said.
But scenes were calmer in other areas of Cairo where Morsi's opponents gathered, and total numbers across the city and elsewhere were still small by early afternoon, numbering in the hundreds. Protests tend to build later in the day in summer.
Several liberal groups usually critical of Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood stayed away, including the April 6 youth movement that galvanised protests to oust Hosni Mubarak last year. Some said Morsi could not be judged just two months into office.
Activists behind the protest accuse Morsi of seeking to monopolise power after he wrested back prerogatives in August that the military council, which had ruled Egypt for a year and a half after Mubarak's fall, had sought to retain for itself.
“Wake up Egyptian people. Don't fall for the Brotherhood,” said Mahmoud, in his 50s, addressing about 200 people in Tahrir Square. “Egypt is for all Egyptians, not only one group.”
But those desperate for an end to months of turmoil said Mursi should be judged at the ballot box, not on the street.
“Respectable democratic countries elect a leader and then give him time to prove himself,” said Sabr Salah, 47, despite not being a Morsi backer. “We must give Morsi a chance because he won the election. We can vote him out again next time.”
Violence in Tahrir flared when bangs went off nearby, but it was not clear if they was caused by a weapon or something else.
Elsewhere, police had cordoned off the presidential palace and the army blocked a road to the Defence Ministry, where there had been clashes between protesters and troops this year.
“We must call for a revolution against the Brotherhood,” said Maha Salem, wearing a Muslim veil, at a protest near Cairo's Nasser City. “They want to take over the country for themselves. Egypt is a civilian state not an Islamist one.”
The organisers, among them opposition politician Mohamed Abou Hamed, want an investigation into the funding of the Brotherhood, repressed by Mubarak during his 30-year rule but which has dominated the political scene since he was toppled.
In a morning headline, the daily Al Masry Al Youm called the demonstration “the first test for Morsi”, who was sworn in on June 30 as Egypt's first president not drawn from army ranks.
The police said they would protect peaceful protests but would crack down on any lawbreakers after speculation in the press and social media that protesters could target Brotherhood premises. Protest organisers said it would be peaceful.
April 6 said in a statement before the protest that it disagreed with the Brotherhood on many issues but added: “Does all that and more push us to issue a judgement now to burn the group's members or premises and exile them from the country?”
Ahmed Said, head of the Free Egyptians, another liberal group staying away, wrote on Facebook: “Those who want to bring down the Brotherhood should bring them down via elections.”
Though some say he deserves more time, he has still drawn criticism, including accusations that he has sought to muzzle the media. Two journalists face charges of insulting Morsi.
However, some liberals back Morsi's early moves, such as his August 12 decision to dismiss top generals, who were seen as obstructing civilian rule, and to cancel a decree that had given the army legislative power in the absence of the parliament, that the generals had dissolved based on a court order.
Yet, one of the biggest tests Morsi faces is whether he can turn around the stricken economy. Anger at the gaping rich-poor divide was a major spark for the anti-Mubarak revolt.
This week, Egypt started talks for a $4.8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund which could help rebuild confidence in a nation that was once a darling of frontier market investors. - Reuters