CAIRO: Opponents of Egypt's president scuffled with his supporters on Friday during a demonstration that was billed as a test of Mohamed Mursi's popularity on the street but which managed to muster only modest numbers against his rule.
After months of turmoil and bloodshed, Egypt's streets have calmed since Mursi's June election that ended 60 years of rule by military men, a relief to Egyptians and the West, wary of instability in a nation that has a peace treaty with Israel.
But Mursi now faces the giant task of rebuilding a shattered economy and delivering better living standards to a nation of 82 million where swathes still live in dire poverty.
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 quieter in other areas of Cairo where Mursi's opponents gathered, and total numbers across the capital and elsewhere were relatively modest, reaching 2,000 or so rather than the seas of people who turned to unseat Mubarak or gathered in other demonstrations since then.
Several liberal groups usually critical of Mursi's Muslim Brotherhood stayed away, including the April 6 youth movement that galvanised protests to oust Hosni Mubarak last year. Some said Mursi could not be judged just two months into office.
Activists behind the protest accuse Mursi 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.”
Many now want to give Mursi time to deliver and want to judge him 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 Mursi backer. “We must give Mursi a chance because he won the election. We can vote him out again next time.”
Violence in Tahrir flared when witnesses heard shots. The Health Ministry reported five people wounded in Tahrir, the state news agency said. The agency also reported a doctor at a temporary clinic in Tahrir said he treated four people including three with gunshot wounds who were taken to hospital nearby.
PRESIDENTIAL PALACE CORDONED OFF
Elsewhere, police set up a cordon around the presidential palace to protect it from protesters gathered there. 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 NasserCity.
“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 Mursi”, 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 Mursi.
However, some liberals back Mursi's early moves, such as his Aug. 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.
However, one of his biggest tasks will be to fix the economy. This week, he launched talks for a $4.8 billion International Monetary Fund loan, a bid to rebuild confidence in what was once a darling of frontier market investors