An army officer points his weapon at the crowd as he helps Islamists leave Cairo’s Al-Fath mosque where supporters of Mohamed Mursi were holed up on Saturday. (AFP)
Cairo, Aug. 17: Gun battles erupted today outside a Cairo mosque where supporters of the ousted President, Mohamed Mursi, were sheltering, turning a central thoroughfare into a war zone as the country’s security seemed to slip further from the grasp of Egypt’s new military rulers.
State television showed soldiers and police officers crouching on the street or in armoured vehicles firing at the minaret of the Al-Fath mosque in Ramses Square, apparently believing the tower was a source of gunfire. Stun grenades were thrown into the mosque, while on the streets outside, civilians wielding crude weapons beat journalists and waited to attack the Islamists when they emerged from the mosque.
Even as the gunfire continued, the army appeared to be trying to negotiate a peaceful end to the standoff. Soldiers had been shown trying to escort Islamists from the mosque, but they faced difficulties because of the crowd, which was attacking the Islamists. By late today, the state news agency said soldiers had cleared the mosque.
The violence came a day after battles throughout Egypt — between security forces and Islamists, and civilians fighting among themselves — left at least 173 people dead, according to an official count.
The standoff at the mosque, which began yesterday, was emblematic of Egypt’s wider chaos, with no end in sight to a feud between the Islamist supporters of Mursi and the military that has devolved into violent conflict since security services raided two Islamist sit-ins last week. The sit-ins were called after the military ousted Mursi, the country’s first democratically elected President.
There were signs today that the civil strife was intensifying, as the government proposed new measures aimed at further limiting the influence of the main Islamist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, or possibly trying to eradicate it.
Civilians have added a layer of menace to Egypt’s violence in recent days, as so-called popular committees set up checkpoints in neighbourhoods, searching cars and occasionally robbing their drivers.
Yeserday, armed men roamed Cairo freely, their allegiances — to Mursi or the military — unclear. And, possibly adding further energy to the cycle of bloodshed and revenge, the Brotherhood announced that the son of its spiritual leader, Mohamed Badie, had been killed during the fighting outside the mosque yesterday “by live ammunition”.
The movement had previously announced that the grandson of its founder, Hassan al-Banna, was killed during the same clashes. Last week, the 17-year old daughter of a senior Brotherhood leader was killed when the army and the police tore through the encampment of Mursi’s supporters at the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque.
The interim Prime Minister, Hazem el-Beblawi, submitted a proposal to the ministry that regulates non-governmental groups to ban the Islamist movement, his spokesman said today. In a news conference, the spokesman, Sherif Shawky, said the world had seen the “organised terrorism and sinful aggressions on the citizens” by a “small faction that lost its mind and was blinded by the lust for power”.
State news media said that hundreds of Brotherhood members had been arrested across Egypt over the last two days, including some it said had firearms or explosives.
In a sign of the government’s growing anger at the international criticism of its crackdown against the Islamists, Egyptian officials lashed out at the foreign news media and unspecified countries today, accusing them of ignoring the “terrorism” of the Islamists.