CAIRO (AP) — Egypt's largest opposition group on Tuesday rejected calls by the president for national reconciliation talks as "too late" as pro and anti-government protesters briefly clashed ahead of plans for a mass rally calling for his ouster later this month.
Critics accuse President Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood party of trying to monopolize power and making unilateral decisions that have further polarized society as turmoil persists after the 2011 ouster of Hosni Mubarak. The Brotherhood charges the opposition with trying to unseat Morsi through street violence instead of through the ballot box, insisting their detractors lack grassroots support.
Morsi has urged the opposition to meet with him to show national solidarity over Ethiopia's plans to build a dam on the Blue Nile, a project Cairo claims would jeopardize the flow of the Nile River through Egypt and cause a critical water shortage.
He met late Monday with a security team that includes the interior and defense ministers, the head of the interim parliament and the foreign minister. They discussed a number of issues, foremost the dam "and its potential impact on Egypt's national security," according to a presidential statement.
The $4.2 billion hydroelectric dam, which would be Africa's largest, challenges a colonial-era agreement that gave Egypt and Sudan the lion's share of rights to Nile water. Experts estimate that Egypt could lose as much as 20 percent of its Nile water in the three to five years needed for Ethiopia to fill a massive reservoir.
Morsi seized on the initiative in a fiery speech late Monday, urging Egyptians to unite and saying he was "ready to meet anyone to serve the nation's interest" to consolidate the country's internal front in the face of external dangers.
Khaled Dawoud, spokesman of the National Salvation Front, the main opposition coalition, said such a call "is simply lip service on Morsi's part and tasteless public relations."
"It is rather too late after Morsi failed to hold a single serious dialogue in his year in office," Dawoud said. Several liberal and secular-minded opposition groups have boycotted earlier calls by Morsi for talks as well, saying the Islamist leader has failed to foster an inclusive political process.
The Culture Ministry has become the latest focal point of tension, with Egyptian writers, artists, film makers, and Opera House staffers occupying the area around and inside the minister's office in Cairo's upscale neighborhood of Zamalek. They are calling for the minister, Alaa Abdel-Aziz, to resign and criticizing his dismissal of top officials, including the head of the Opera House who had been in the post for less than two years.
Abdel-Aziz says the ministry needs new blood and an overhaul after decades of corruption under Mubarak. The protesters claim the minister is pursuing a cleansing of anti-Brotherhood officials.
Tensions rose Tuesday when a group of Adel-Aziz backers rallied in front of his office in Zamalek, challenging those camped outside. Opposition protesters grabbed at least six of the Morsi supporters outside and began beating, kicking and throwing stones at the men. Riot police tried to intervene but they were outnumbered.
People on both sides appealed for calm and the anti-Brotherhood protesters eventually let go several bearded men they had grabbed and beaten. The sit-in continued with artists performing song and dance outside the minister's office.
The melee came as the opposition is calling for nationwide protests on June 30 to mark one year since Morsi became Egypt's first freely elected president.
The call for Morsi's ouster has also grown into a signature drive known as "Rebel" or "Tamarod," conducted by thousands of young volunteers. The campaign said it has collected more than 7 million signatures, aiming for 15 million by June 30. The signatures have no legal basis to force Morsi's removal, but the campaign has boosted the morale of the country's fragmented opposition
"On June 30, the revolution will rule Egypt" chanted the anti-Brotherhood protesters as they pointed at the culture minister's supporters who flashed victory signs. The protesters also mocked the Islamist supporters, and hung a sign on the gate of the ministry that read: "The Brotherhood and culture do not mix."
Interior Minister Mohammed, meanwhile, said that the presidential palace, the planned focal point of protests, will be secured by the Republican Guard forces charged with protecting the president. He said police will not be deployed there in a bid to prevent violent confrontations.
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