CAIRO – Egyptian riot police fired tear gas and clashed Thursday with dozens of protesters as they tried to tear down a cement wall built to prevent demonstrators from reaching the parliament and the Cabinet building in central Cairo.
The violence came on the eve of the second anniversary of Egypt's uprising that toppled longtime authoritarian President Hosni Mubarak. Three weeks of mass protests that erupted on Jan. 25, 2011, eventually forced Mubarak out of office.
Since then, Egypt underwent a tumultuous transition under the interim leadership of military generals until the election last June of Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood group. His first six months in office were marked by political tensions, street clashes, and an economic crunch that sapped his popularity.
Thursday's clashes may foreshadow a violent anniversary on Friday, when youth activists and opposition groups have called for large rallies in Cairo's Tahrir Square and in front of the presidential palace in the upscale Heliopolis suburb.
The opposition has demanded a suspension or radical changes to be made Egypt's newly adopted constitution, which an Islamist-dominated constituent assembly drafted amid deep polarization and mass street protests.
The constitution, which many Egyptians see as a detrimental to civil liberties and a precursor to a religious state, passed with a 64 percent "yes" vote in a December referendum in which around 33 percent of voters took part.
In an online video message posted on Thursday, the nation's most prominent opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei urged Egyptians to rally in the streets but warned that change will take time.
"I demand from each one of you, all across Egypt, to prove that the revolution must continue and much be completed," said ElBaradei, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and former head of the U.N. nuclear agency in the message.
"Egyptians rose up for the sake of freedom, dignity and social justice," he said. "We must not stop until we see all the demands achieved. It will take time but we have to put ourselves on the right path."
The opposition wants to use the occasion to put pressure on Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, who secular and liberal Egyptians accuse of trying to monopolize power.
Meanwhile, the Brotherhood and other Islamist parties announced they will stay away from the streets on Friday's anniversary and warned the opposition against instigating violence. However, a Brotherhood member said that orders were given for supporters to rally at a mosque located near the presidency. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Egypt witnessed some of its worst street clashes on Dec. 4, when supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood clamped down on tents and protesters holding a sit-in in front of the presidential palace. Clashes ended with 10 dead and hundreds injured on the two sides.
The Brotherhood said it would mark the anniversary by planting a million trees in a campaign entitled "Let's build Egypt."
In a statement posted on the group's official website, its leader, Mohammed Badie, advised Muslims to "watch their enemies," invoking challenges the Prophet Muhammad faced while founding a new state in the holy city of Medina in the 7th Century.
Commemorating the prophet's birthday, a national holiday, Badie said Muhammad faced "hypocrites, filled with hatred and envy for the emerging group."