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Egypt's President Mohamed Morsi is on the defensive. He went on state television late today and appealed for an end to the violence between supporters and opponents of his government. Last night, the two sides clashed outside the presidential palace. Six people were killed and hundreds more wounded.
CORNISH: The fighting is a sharp escalation in the two-week-old conflict that began after Morsi gave himself sweeping new powers. He did so hoping to push through a new constitution that had been drafted largely by Morsi's Islamist allies. But in today's speech, he called for a national dialogue on December 8th aimed at finding a consensus on the issue.
We go to NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, who is in Cairo. And, Soraya, what was President Morsi's message today?
SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Well, he was very defiant, even as he reached out and offered this dialogue that's to take place on Saturday at noon. He didn't make it clear who exactly he would be willing to talk to, although he said it would include youth and it would include people who are on the opposition.
But he also made it clear that he was going to stick with the constitutional declarations that gave him sweeping powers, remove him from judicial oversight. And also, that he wants to push ahead with the controversial draft of a constitution, which he'd like to see voted on by the Egyptian public in a few weeks.
CORNISH: And we mentioned the clashes in Cairo earlier. What sparked this violence overnight?
NELSON: Well, what happened is that the Muslim Brotherhood called for protesters to go outside the presidential palace, where a lot of the opposition had been gathering and had set up some tents. And they basically clashed with each other. What happened was the pro-Morsi supporters went ahead and tore down tents and were beating some of the opposition - striking them with stones and even bullets, according to some of the reports we heard. And as a result, a fair number of people died and hundreds were wounded.
Now, it's also important to note that there appears to be violence on the other side. This evening, for example, we heard that right after Mr. Morsi's speech, that the Muslim Brotherhood headquarters in Cairo were set on fire. This is according to a Muslim Brotherhood spokesman.
CORNISH: Now help us understand the current status of this draft constitution. I mean, is it going to go to the Egyptian public for a vote?
NELSON: Well, that's certainly what Mr. Morsi indicates. He says that they are ready to go ahead and hold a vote on this, even though the judges who would be independent monitors are on strike; even though the head of the committee that was supposed to handle setting up the referendum quit last night. And, you know, people are still out protesting. It seems very hard to believe but he insists that the vote will go ahead.
CORNISH: And why are Egyptians opposed to the draft constitution?
NELSON: Well, it was drawn up by the Islamist allies of President Morsi. And so, they're concerned that this is going to be an Islamist/Sharia-type constitution that doesn't guarantee political or religious freedoms or rights for women.
CORNISH: Soraya, is there concern that Egypt is, in effect, headed for another revolution?
NELSON: There is a lot of concern about that. The number of protesters is growing in the streets. You also have the violence that's escalating. And certainly the speech tonight is unlikely to allay the fears and the anger that's out there.
CORNISH: That's NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson speaking to us from Cairo. Soraya, thank you.
NELSON: You're welcome.
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