Saturday, August 17, 2013

Standoff in Cairo as Security Forces Surround Mosque - New York Times (blog)

Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters

Supporters of the deposed president, Mohamed Morsi, waited by a barricaded door inside the Fateh Mosque in Cairo on Saturday.

CAIRO — Gun battles erupted Saturday outside a Cairo mosque where supporters of the ousted president, Mohamed Morsi, 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 armored vehicles firing at the minaret of the 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 Saturday, 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 Friday, was emblematic of Egypt's wider chaos, with no end in sight to a feud between the Islamist supporters of Mr. Morsi 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 Mr. Morsi, the country's first democratically elected president.

There were signs on Saturday 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 neighborhoods, searching cars and occasionally robbing their drivers. On Friday, armed men roamed Cairo freely, their allegiances — to Mr. Morsi 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 on Friday "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 Mr. Morsi's supporters at the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque.

The interim prime minister, Hazem el-Beblawi, submitted a proposal to the ministry that regulates nongovernmental groups to ban the Islamist movement, his spokesman said Saturday. In a news conference, the spokesman, Sherif Shawky, said the world had seen the "organized terrorism and sinful aggressions on the citizens" by a "small faction that lost its mind and was blinded by the lust for power, and the dreams of coming back for power."

It was unclear if Mr. Beblawi was suggesting that the Brotherhood could be allowed to maintain its political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party. Mr. Shawky asserted that the government was still interested in an "inclusive" political process, but only after "this homeland belongs to everyone," he added.

In the meantime, the government has continued to sideline its opponents. 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 on Saturday, accusing them of ignoring the "terrorism" of the Islamists. At a news conference, Mustafa Hegazy, an adviser to Egypt's interim president, warned that the Egyptian government "knows who supported them and those who failed them," as well as "those who give international cover or financial cover" to acts of terrorism.

"Egypt is not a soft state," he said. "It is not a follower. It has never been and will never be."

The government has suggested the Brotherhood was behind recent chaos in Sinai as well as attacks on Christian churches, which intensified after the brutal crackdown of the Islamists last week.

The mosque that was the site of Saturday's clash had been transformed into a field hospital and a morgue on Friday. Later that night, it was surrounded by riot police officers and the military, who negotiated with the Islamists early Saturday to abandon the mosque.

Soldiers fired their weapons in the air to disperse civilians trying to beat the Islamists. On the edges of the mosque, some of the civilians carried rubber hoses or metal pipes. "The mosque is full of weapons," one man said to a crowd, stirring them up.

Then there was gunfire, though its source was unclear. A soldier could be seen on television peering through binoculars. White spots began to appear on the brown brick of the minaret, as the bullets struck.

Mayy El Sheikh contributed reporting.
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