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Deadly street battles rage in Egypt

McClatchy Foreign Staff

August 16. 2013 9:01PM
Protesters who support ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi carry an injured demonstrator during clashes outside Azbkya police station at Ramses Square in Cairo, August 16, 2013. At least 27 people were killed in Cairo on Friday during a protest by supporters of deposed President Mohamed Mursi, said a Reuters witness who counted their bodies. (REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh)

CAIRO — Several cities across Egypt erupted into fierce street battles Friday between supporters of ousted President Mohammed Mursi outraged over the deaths of hundreds at sit-ins earlier this week, residents and security forces.

Health Ministry officials said that at least 60 people died, pushing the death toll toward 700 since armed government forces swept into two camps of pro-Mursi demonstrators Wednesday. Several news channels described the day’s events as “Egypt fighting terrorism,” embracing the government’s definition of members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the secretive organization through which Mursi had ascended to the presidency.

In a statement, the Brotherhood called for its supporters to go back to the streets for another week. Those opposed to the military ouster of the democratically elected Mursi “only have two options: either to go back home or protest. If they go back home, they will suffer from oppression and military rule,” said Amr Darrag, who leads the foreign affairs committee of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party. “The regime is (killing protesters) because they don’t have any political means” to end the crisis.

In Cairo, abandoned highways and bridges were peppered with burnt cars, blockades and tanks, as Mursi supporters, largely Islamists, marched in what they called a “Day of Rage” against Wednesday’s unprecedented government crackdown. The various protests never could coalesce, as they were confronted by repeated gunfire, forcing them to disperse.

Mursi supporters charged that either police or military personnel were shooting at them from helicopters that hovered over the capital. At one point, video captured protesters plunging from a bridge into the Nile to escape the gunfire. Lines of bodies were at mosques turned into makeshift morgues.

Alaa Mohammed, 16, awoke Friday morning to attend the funeral of her friend Asmaa el Beltagy, 17, daughter of Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed el Beltagy. She had died Wednesday at the sit-in in the Rabaa section of Cairo. As women wailed for Asmaa, Mohammed said she planned to protest for the first time in her life because “the military has to be punished for what they are doing.”

Marwa Dewaidar, 33, a 16-year member of the Brotherhood who once taught Asmaa, urged the women around her to write their names and national ID numbers on their arms in case they too, ended up at the morgue.

“We cannot live with these people,” Dewaidar said of the government as women around her began asking each other for pens.

The government and the Brotherhood blamed each other for Friday’s violence. Many Mursi supporters vowed retribution, not for his ouster but for the deaths of their “martyrs.”

For the first time, Egyptians spoke Friday of potential civil war and asked how their nation compared with Algeria, which endured a brutal civil war in the 1990s, and Syria, which is engulfed in a 2-year-old civil war.

“CC=Bashar” said graffiti near Nasr City, in Cairo’s eastern outskirts. It was a reference to military strongman Gen. Abdel-Fatah el-Sissi, pronounced See-See, equating him to Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Through the gunfire at so many sites, it was unclear who had shot whom.

Reporters saw residents and Islamists alike armed. Residents would pull out sticks, handguns and machetes as Mursi supporters’ protests drew near and Islamists would brandish guns as soon as they heard gunfire. Finding out who had started the battles was all but impossible.

In the Giza section of Cairo, for example, numerous protesters told McClatchy that army forces stationed nearby had fatally shot two protesters and wounded a third.

“I saw soldiers shoot at us from the church,” said Hussein Ali, 37, an accountant for an electrical company who is a Mursi supporter. A nearby army officer told McClatchy that his troops did indeed shoot at protesters but only when they had tried to storm the church and set it ablaze.

Mustafa Mahmoud, 23, who lives near the church and said he didn’t support either side, said the troops had started shooting when the protesters came by the church “because they were too close.”

In a sign of how much the landscape has changed, whereas Mursi supporters once had demanded that he be reinstated, they now said they were taking to the streets as a form of retribution for the deaths of protesters Wednesday.

“Either we seek democratic solutions from A to Z or we take to the street,” Dewaidar said at the funeral. “How can we believe in the vote when they throw our vote in the trash bin?”

Within seconds of finishing their prayer, which ends with the line, “Peace be upon us and on those who are righteous servants of Allah,” the angry chants against the military began.

“Down with all the dogs of the military,” thousands screamed as they began they marching toward the burial site.

Nearby, residents had set up a checkpoint manned by men in their 20s armed with machetes. It was unclear whether the men who were checking those passing by were there to protect the neighborhood from the Muslim Brotherhood or attack them when they arrived.

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