Security forces in Egypt clashed with supporters of ousted President Mohamed Mursi today, leaving at least 51 dead in violence that had the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm calling for a rebellion against the military.
The early morning shoot-out outside the barracks of the Republican Guard in Cairo, for which the military and Mursi supporters blamed each other, marked the deadliest single incident since the army deposed the Islamist leader on July 3 and threatened to further complicate efforts to form a new government to heal the nation’s rifts. The only ultra-conservative Salafi party to have sided with the army pulled out of talks to select a new prime minister over the violence.
The Brotherhood’s political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, called on Egyptians “to rise up against those who want to steal their revolution with tanks and armored vehicles.” In an e-mailed statement, it also urged the international community to “intervene to prevent more massacres and strip the political cover from the military rule to prevent a new Syria,” a reference to the civil war there.
Accounts differed as to what prompted the killings. The Brotherhood, which fielded Mursi for office and has seen several of its top leaders and officials arrested, detained, or summoned for questioning in the days since his ouster, said the attacks were unprovoked.
Armed forces spokesman Ahmed Ali said by phone that protesters had tried to storm the barracks. Ali, speaking to reporters later, said the facility and troops securing it came under fire from attackers.
“The armed forces always deals with matters with a lot of wisdom but, of course, there’s a limit to patience,” he said. “Tampering with Egyptian national security will not be allowed,” he said, stressing that the military had repeatedly warned against attacks on its installations.
More than 435 people were wounded, ambulance service head Mohamed Sultan, who provided the death toll, said by phone.
The clashes come at a delicate time for Egypt, which is in the midst of trying to form a technocrat government after Mursi was pushed out by the military as hundreds of thousands of his opponents rallied nationwide. The protests, that began June 30, were the escalation of months of accusations that he had sold out the goals of the 2011 uprising against Hosni Mubarak in a bid to secure a monopoly on power for the Brotherhood.
Mursi’s ouster, however, outraged Islamists who argued it was a coup against the nation’s first freely elected civilian president and a continuation of decades of persecution of the Brotherhood and Islamists.
The day’s events promised to inject new tension and uncertainty into a government-building process supposed to cement the push for national reconciliation after deepening polarization since Mubarak’s ouster.
Amid efforts to pull together a new government, the ultra-conservative Nour Party suspended its participation in talks to name a premier because of the “massacre,” Shaaban Abdel Alim, assistant secretary-general of the party, said by phone.
“The reason why we accepted to be part of the political scene is to stop the bloodletting and there’s no point of our participating in political talks with the bloodshed now,” Abdel Alim said. “The party is still considering its next steps.”
Nobel Laureate and opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei called for an independent investigation and a peaceful transition of power. “Violence begets violence and should be strongly condemned,” he said on his Twitter account.
“The events could mean a collapse of the political talks or at least a delay, at a time when the country is in desperate need of a government to reach consensus,” Ziad Akl, senior analyst with Cairo-based Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, said by phone. “The incident gives Islamists a valid reason to escalate.”
The military deposed Mursi a year into his term with the economy struggling: Net international reserves were more than 50 percent below their December 2010 levels and a $4.8 billion International Monetary Fund loan request is still pending. Egypt’s stock index dropped the most in almost a month today after the clashes.
The focus of Mursi supporters on the Republican Guard compound seemed predicated on the belief the ousted leader may be held there. Ali wouldn’t disclose his whereabouts.
The violence may undercut the military’s argument before the international community that this was a popular uprising versus a coup. Footage on Al Jazeera television showed dead bodies and wounded civilians being treated by doctors. State television aired footage that appeared to be taken from the army side, showing protesters throwing rocks and firebombs at the army, and an apartment building catching fire.
“It seems the powers-that-be have learnt little since January 25, 2011,” said Raza Agha, chief Middle East and Africa economist at VTB Capital Plc in London, in e-mailed comments, referring to the beginning of the uprising against Mubarak. “Worse still, the government’s post-Mursi tactics will only deepen political schisms” while also helping Islamists in any elections that may follow, he said.
Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the grand imam of Al Azhar, called for an urgent probe into the violence and for the formation of a national reconciliation committee within two days. El-Tayeb, one of the religious leaders in attendance as the military announced Mursi’s removal, said the transitional period shouldn’t exceed six months.
Yesterday, Ziad Bahaa-Eldin, a former lawmaker and ex-head of the Egyptian Financial Supervisory Authority, emerged as a strong candidate for the premiership, Ahmed El-Meslemani, media adviser to Mansour, said by phone. ElBaradei, whose own nomination for the post was opposed by the Nour Party, is being discussed as a potential vice president, he said.
Mirna El-Helbawi, a Cairo resident, said she watched today’s violence unfold from her balcony overlooking the Republican Guard compound. Mursi supporters fired what appeared to be birdshot at the military after the soldiers had tried to disperse the protest using tear gas, she said.
The Islamists “climbed to the rooftop of the mosque in the area and started shooting, and the exchange of gunfire between both sides lasted for about three hours,” she said by phone. The prayer leader of the mosque said the army fired at protesters during dawn prayers, according to the Brotherhood’s English-language website.