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Islamists, protesters clash in Egypt

| Friday, April 19, 2013, 6:30 p.m.
AFP/Getty Images
TOPSHOTS Muslim Brotherhood movement's supporters throw stones towards opponents of the movement during clashes on April 19, 2013 in central Cairo. Two people were hurt after anti-Islamist protesters marched on thousands of Islamists who had rallied outside the Supreme Court in central Cairo demanding judicial reform. AFP PHOTO /MOHAMED EL-SHAHEDMOHAMED EL-SHAHED/AFP/Getty Images

CAIRO — Supporters and opponents of Egypt's Islamist president battled in the streets near Tahrir Square on Friday as an Islamist rally demanding a purge of the judiciary devolved into violence.

The rally centered on a contentious aspect of the country's deep political polarization — the courts. Islamist backers of President Mohamed Morsy say the judiciary is infused with former regime loyalists who are blocking his policies, while opponents fear Islamists want to take over the courts and get rid of secular-minded judges to consolidate the Muslim Brotherhood's power.

But beyond the specific issues, the scenes of youths from both sides waving homemade pistols and beating each other with sticks illustrated how entrenched violence has become in Egypt's political crisis. In recent weeks, several marches and rallies by the country's various camps have devolved into street battles, fueling the bitterness on all sides.

Thousands of Morsi supporters — mostly backers of the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist hard-liners — held rallies Friday outside the High Court building in Cairo and in the coastal city of Alexandria, demanding the “cleansing of the judiciary.”

The marches appeared aimed at presenting Islamists' actions on the courts as a popular “demand of the revolution.” Islamist lawmakers who dominate the legislature have announced plans to begin debating a bill regulating the judiciary, aimed at ensuring the independence of courts they contend are dominated by supporters of ousted leader Hosni Mubarak.

But opponents believe the Islamists aim to remove judges and install new ones who support their agenda. In an interview with a Kuwaiti newspaper this month, the former head of the Brotherhood, Mehdi Akef, called the judiciary “sick” and “corrupt” and said a new law could force out 3,500 of Egypt's approximately 13,000 judges and prosecution officials by lowering the retirement age to 60 from 70 — though it remains to be seen if lowering the age will be in the final bill.

“Go for it Morsi and we are behind you. Cleanse the judiciary,” thousands of Islamists chanted outside the High Court building.

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