Clashes, gunfire in Cairo as Mohammed Morsi’s supporters take to streets

 

McClatchy Foreign Staff

Armed supporters of deposed Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi fought pitched battles Friday near Tahrir Square with crowds that had favored Morsi’s overthrow, in a worrisome sign of open conflict between the two sides.

Scores of people were injured in the hours-long clash, which began as the sun set and didn’t end until around 10 p.m., when soldiers and police arrived to impose order.

Elsewhere, Morsi supporters and the military also battled as his backers in the Muslim Brotherhood rallied to the streets in what their leaders called "Friday of rejection," demanding Mori’s return to power two days after he was deposed by the military.

The military shot at least one pro-Morsi demonstrator dead outside the headquarters of the Republican Guard, the elite military unit assigned to protect the president. The shooting occurred as Morsi supporters converged on the guard’s headquarters, where many think Morsi is being held. Guards and police opened fire as the crowd approached. A video of the incident posted online showed a man fatally shot in the head, just in front of the guards.

The Health Ministry said 12 people had been killed in Alexandria, the country’s second largest city.

In the Sinai, jihadists armed with advanced weapons smuggled from places such as Libya attacked military checkpoints in the early morning hours and battled Egyptian troops throughout the day. At least five soldiers were killed.

In Zagazig, Morsi’s hometown, about an hour north of Cairo, supporters and opponents clashed on the street, injuring dozens.

There were reports of Muslim Brotherhood members being arrested and crackdowns on the news media. Khairat el Shater, the deputy Brotherhood leader, was arrested, state media said. CNN also reported that while it was covering the clashes in Cairo, the military stole a camera during a live shot.

It was difficult to gauge the extent of violence nationwide or even how many Morsi partisans had turned out for the protests. The Health Ministry announced that 30 people had been killed and 790 injured across the country. But the military had shut down at least four television stations sympathetic to Morsi, blacking out what was happening in much of the country.

Still, there was little doubt that anger was high among Morsi’s supporters over the way his presidency had ended.

Mohammed Badie, the supreme leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, who was thought to have been arrested Thursday, re-emerged Friday and offered to engage in talks with the military. But such talks would happen only after Morsi had been reinstated as president, he said, something that seemed highly unlikely.

The country’s new president, Adly Mansour, the head of the Supreme Constitutional Court, put on an air of normalcy, announcing who would be his legal and political advisers. He also dissolved the Islamist-based smaller chamber of Parliament, the Shura Council. The lower house of Parliament had been dissolved last year.

Tension was high throughout the day as pro-Morsi demonstrators gathered in pockets throughout Cairo.

While their numbers were far fewer than the huge throngs that had turned out for three days to demand Morsi’s resignation, their emotions were intense, and many here worried that the military’s decision to open fire, the exchange of gunfire near Tahrir Square and the Islamists’ willingness to go on the offensive and vow holy war seemed to portend a lengthy period of instability and, perhaps, Egyptians killing Egyptians.

The first violence in the capital came at around 3 p.m., when pro-Morsi demonstrators surged toward troops stationed behind barbed wire and tanks at the Republican Guard headquarters, according to witnesses and video posted of the incident.

Gunshots rang out and the crowd retreated, leaving behind one man lying on his side with a gunshot wound to the left side of his head. Witnesses said he’d been carrying a Morsi poster.

Others clearly had been injured. In Rabaa, the Cairo district that’s been the gathering place for Morsi’s supporters, several people who’d fled the Republican Guard headquarters violence were drenched in blood, either because they were victims of pellet shots or they’d helped carry out the roughly 100 wounded.

Walid el Halali, 33, a Ministry of Investment employee, was among them. He said police and Republican Guards had fired on the crowd. He struggled to talk, a victim of four pellet shots, including one to his mouth.

“People have died. I saw someone’s brains on the ground,” he said.

The clash near Tahrir Square began when a group of Morsi supporters who’d been marching toward the headquarters of state television and radio, known as Maspero, broke off and moved toward the square, the home of the 2011 uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak and where Morsi opponents have been since Wednesday.

Witnesses said the Morsi demonstrators opened fire with small arms on the anti-Morsi crowds, which responded by firing back and launching fireworks at the Morsi supporters.

The two sides battled for hours. Ayman Ahmed, 26, a banker, said he’d seen people fall to the ground during the confrontation, though he couldn’t say whether they’d been injured.

Later, after the military and police arrived and separated the groups, bloodstains could be seen along the 6th of October Bridge over the Nile, and rocks and broken glass littered the streets. Four army tanks had been stationed outside the Maspero building.

Sheikh Ahmed el Tayeb, the head of Al Azhar institute, the premier center of Sunni Islamic learning, issued a statement as troops arrived, saying Muslims shouldn’t be killing each other and urging both sides to seek a peaceful resolution.

In the Sinai, jihadists, who weren’t big fans of Morsi, said the decision by the military to remove him from office was an act of war. They attacked several military checkpoints in the early morning hours, killing at least one soldier and injuring three others, according to Dr. Abdel Wahab, the manager of Arish hospital, near the scene.

“They are against the military rule and will not forget the brutality of the police who tortured them and detained their wives and children, during Mubarak and the military’s rule,” said Sheikh Ibrahim al Menei, tribal leader of Swarkeh, who witnessed the overnight attacks.

“Morsi represented a buffer between them and the military and in a way pitied them and understood their plight," Menei said. "Now these Salafi jihadi groups feel betrayed furthermore by the coup and have vowed to continue attacks on the military and Israel until he is reinstated.”

According to Gen. Sameh Bishady, the head of North Sinai security, clashes began around 2:30 a.m., when attackers armed with heavy weaponry – including mortars, anti-aircraft guns mounted on pickups, rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns – lunged toward the military checkpoints. Military aircraft began flying overhead around 3 a.m., and the situation remained tense throughout the day.

Bellicose talk was common. Mohamed al Zawahiri, a prominent Salafist and brother of al Qaida leader Ayman al Zawahiri, said he wouldn’t be surprised if other radical Islamists followed the Sinai example.

“We never believed in democracy or ballot boxes, and according to our Shariah, such a Western-tailored system is never acceptable,” he said, using the Arabic word for Islamic law. “Many Islamists went with this so-called democracy and beat the liberals fair and square at their game. Then the military, backed by the U.S., turned the table with this coup, which will blow up the country beyond belief, and the region.”

Despite the rampant violence, the newly named technocratic civilian government attempted to move forward. Mansour announced that a fellow judge, Aly Aoud Saleh, would serve as his constitutional adviser and another judge, Mostafa Hegazy, would advise him on politics.

But the government faced setbacks outside Egypt. The African Union suspended Egypt’s membership, citing a “military coup.”

Fahmy and Ismail are McClatchy special correspondents.

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