Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi spoke out against the deadly clashes plaguing his country Thursday, promising investigations into the violence and insisting that peaceful dialogue was the only way to get through the crisis.
Morsi also vowed that Egypt would not return to the oppressive dictatorships of its past, defending the decrees at the heart of the protests. He said it was lawful for him to self-appoint near-absolute powers, setting him above judicial oversight.
"While we express the right to freedom of expression, I cannot tolerate that any person perpetrate the killing of any person. I cannot tolerate any act of killing or vandalism," he said.
Egypt experienced its worst violence Wednesday since the revolution that brought down dictator Hosni Mubarak in February 2011. Supporters and opponents of the new Islamist president, as well as police, clashed outside the presidential palace and left six people dead. On Thursday, the Egyptian Army had surrounded the palace with barbed wire and tanks.
Seven hundred men and women were also injured in the clashes, which escalated as thousands of Morsi supporters camped overnight outside the palace to drive out a sit-in by opposition activists. Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood group, which had erected metal barricades and manned checkpoints with rocks and empty glass bottles overnight, withdrew from the area by afternoon.
Morsi offered his condolences to the families of the victims and referred to the conflict as a "storm" his country must weather through.
"We were faced with a storm that I pray God will guide us through. I pray God will safeguard us from the repercussions from this storm," he said.
The speech was taped in advance and broadcasted on Egyptian and Arab news channels.
Morsi also emphasized a unity of Egyptians, likely a reference to critics who accuse the president for only caring for Islamist citizens rather than all Egyptians.
"We all must transcend our differences," he said.
The crisis began with decrees Morsi set on November 22. That was followed by the hurried passing of a constitution draft by his Islamist allies, moves that deeply polarized the country and took political tensions to a height not seen since the uprising against Mubarak nearly two years ago. Opponents of the constitution worry that the constitution will be too much to the religious right and won't protect many human rights.
Morsi remains determined to press forward with the Dec. 15 referendum to pass the new charter. The opposition, for its part, is refusing dialogue unless Morsi rescinds the decrees and shelves the disputed charter.
Mohamed ElBaradei, an opposition leader, said late Wednesday that Morsi's rule was "no different" than Mubarak's.
"In fact, it is perhaps even worse," the Nobel Peace Prize laureate told a news conference after he accused the president's supporters of a "vicious and deliberate" attack on peaceful demonstrators outside the palace.
The renewed violence sent Egypt's main stock market index down 4.6 percent. The loss was about 10.4 billion Egyptian pounds (around $1.7 billion). Persistent capital outflows since last year's uprising have forced the central bank to burn through its foreign currency reserves to support the Egyptian pound. The Central Bank of Egypt released figures Thursday that show foreign reserves at the end of November stood at just $15 billion, nearly half of what they were 19 months ago.
The army's Republican Guard, an elite unit assigned to protect the president and his palaces, surrounded the presidential palace and gave protesters on both sides until 3 p.m. (1300 GMT, 8 a.m. EDT) to clear the vicinity, according to an official statement. The statement also announced a ban on protests outside any of the nation's presidential palaces.
Six tanks and two armored vehicles belonging to the Republican Guard were stationed at roads leading to the palace in the upscale Cairo district of Heliopolis. The guard's commander, Maj. Gen. Mohammed Zaki, sought to assure Egyptians that his forces were not taking sides.
"They will not be a tool to crush protesters and no force will be used against Egyptians," he said in comments carried by the official MENA news agency.
Several dozen anti-Morsi protesters continued to demonstrate across the street from the palace past the military's afternoon deadline, chanting slogans against the president. Thousands marched through Cairo toward the palace and joined the protest Thursday evening.
"We raise Egypt's flag but they raise the Brotherhood flag. This is the difference," protester Magdi Farag said as he held the tri-colored national flag stained with blood from his friend's injury in clashes the night before.
The Muslim Brotherhood were chanting "as if they are in a holy war against the infidels," businessman Magdi Ashri said of the clashes. Protesting outside the palace again Thursday evening, Ashri said that he was once a supporter of the president, but after last night has changed his position.
The Brotherhood also said three of its offices outside Cairo were torched by protesters Wednesday.