CAIRO (AP) — Egypt's president delivered a stern warning to his opponents on Sunday, saying he may be close to taking unspecified measures to "protect this nation" two days after supporters of his Muslim Brotherhood and opposition protesters fought street battles in the worst bout of political violence in three months.
Nearly 200 people were injured in Friday's violence, some seriously, outside the headquarters of the Brotherhood, Egypt's dominant political group.
"If I have to do what is necessary to protect this nation I will, and I am afraid that I may be close to doing so," a visibly angry Morsi said in an animated speech to the opening session of a conference on women's rights.
"I will do so very, very soon. Sooner than those trying to shake the image of this nation think," said the Islamist leader who took office in June as the country's first freely elected president.
"Let us not be dragged into an area where I will take a harsh decision," he warned.
While not naming any one opposition group or critic in particular, his comments were the strongest hint to date that he believes the parties and politicians grouped in the National Salvation Front, the main opposition coalition, were directly behind the violence.
His comments were initially released in a series of tweets on his account but state television later aired extensive excerpts from the address.
He also warned that "appropriate measures" would be taken against politicians found to be behind Friday's violence, regardless of their seniority. Anyone found to be using the media to "incite violence" will also be held accountable, he added. His comments came just hours after dozens of Islamists staged a protest outside studios belonging to independent TV networks that are critical of the Egyptian leader.
The Islamists are protesting what they see as the biased coverage of Friday's clashes. The Brotherhood says it does not support the protest, but some of the protesters were chanting slogans in support of Brotherhood leader Mohammed Badie.
Friday's clashes followed an assault a week earlier by Brotherhood supporters on protesters painting derogatory graffiti outside the group's headquarters. The protesters chanted hostile slogans and taunted Brotherhood supporters when some of them tried to stop demonstrators from posting flyers on the headquarters' outside walls.
The Brotherhood supporters also assaulted reporters at the scene. The group later said its supporters were provoked by the protesters who scribbled profanities on the headquarters' outside walls and that the reporters were part of the protest.
Morsi's comments made no direct mention of the clashes but appeared to be a possible prelude to measures against the mostly liberal and secular opposition.
"I call on all political forces not to provide a political cover for violence, rioting and attacks on private and public property," Morsi said. "I will not be happy if investigations find some politicians guilty."
The National Salvation Front said in a statement it did not condone violence and called for an independent probe into all incidents of violence. Noting that the presidency, the government and the Brotherhood were making "fierce attacks" on the media, blaming it for inciting the violence, which it said was rather the result of failed promises of inclusiveness by Morsi and his group. It contends that the Brotherhood aims to monopolize power and control the state.
Only "drastic political solutions and genuine national participation" will save Egypt from the cycle of violence, it added.
The latest bout of political violence was the worst seen in Egypt since at least 10 people died in clashes between supporters and opponents of Morsi in Cairo in December. Images of bloodied men from the two sides, burning buses and rows of black-clad riot police were splashed across the front pages of Egypt's newspapers on Sunday and Saturday, giving the distinct impression of a nation torn by strife.
Violence and a quick succession of political crises are deepening the schism in Egypt between Morsi and his Islamist supporters on one hand, and moderate Muslims, secular and leftist Egyptians along with Christians and women on the other. The seemingly endless political unrest in the eight months since Morsi took office, coupled with a free falling economy and tenuous security situation, have led some commentators and politicians to warn of civil war if nothing is done soon. Morsi however on Sunday dismissed the prospect of the "collapse" of Egypt as a false notion entertained by his foes.
He also repeated earlier claims that the political violence was engineered by remnants of the Hosni Mubarak regime, toppled in a popular uprising two years ago, and fueled by outside powers he did not identify. He also claimed that paid thugs were behind the violence, not genuine protesters.
"No one in our neighborhood wants this nation to stand on its feet. I will cut off any finger that meddles in Egypt," he said alluding to alleged foreign interference. "I can see two or three fingers that are meddling inside," he said without elaborating.
Morsi also sought to debunk an often repeated charge that he places the interests of the Brotherhood ahead of those of the nation and that he is only the president of the "Brothers."
"I never was and I never will be," he said in response to those charges. Ruthlessly ridiculed in the independent media, Morsi said he did not mind criticism of his person. "But I will not allow it when criticizing the president of the republic is designed to undermine the nation."