Armed men join police to prevent Morsy supporters from blocking bridge

A heavy burst of violence on Friday night involving the police and diehard supporters of deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy, who were trying to block a strategic bridge—the lifeline of Cairo—has left scores of people dead and further diminished chances of national reconciliation.

By daybreak on Saturday, it became clear that in the fierce clashes, where armed men apparently joined the police to prevent pro-Morsy supporters from blocking the bridge, had ended up in yet another bloodbath.

Confusion, however, prevailed over the exact body count. The Egyptian health ministry said that 38 people were killed and 239 wounded in the skirmishes, which began around 11.30 p.m. local time on Friday. The Muslim Brotherhood, Mr. Morsy’s parent organisation, has vigorously contested the ministry’s claim, with its doctors, who had attended to casualties in a makeshift field hospital, claiming that 120 people had perished in what they described was a merciless “massacre.”

This was the second incident of multiple casualties in Cairo. Pre-dawn firing on July 8 by the army outside the Republican Guard headquarters, where Mr. Morsy was presumably being held, killed 52 people. The killings in both cases took place within a short distance from the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque in Nasr city, where supporters of the ousted President have encamped since June 28.

The embers of the overnight clashes were yet to cool, as a low-key back-and-forth between the police and protesters persisted till late afternoon on Saturday along radial roads in the vicinity of the pro-Morsy sit-in. Protesters threw stones at the security forces, who prevented their advance by establishing barricades of barbed wire.

But occupying a sharply contrasting mental space, anti-Morsy demonstrators, by evening on Friday, had poured into Tahrir Square, which overflowed with people, who also occupied the nearby bridge on the Nile, and the road leading to the ministry of information, nearly a kilometre away. These demonstrators had descended on the Square in a show of strength to deliver what the military had earlier sought—a “mandate” to root out “violence and terrorism” from the country. They were responding to a call by Defence Minister General Abdel Fatah El-Sisi, who had asked supporters to demonstrate their street power, as a way to endorse the military’s intent, which many interpreted was to begin an earnest crackdown on the supporters of the Brotherhood.

Following the anti-Morsy rallies, the newly appointed interim government gave the first indications that an assault on the Brotherhood encampment at Nasr city may not be far away. In an interview with Egyptian television channel Al-Hayat 2, Egypt’s interim interior minister Mohamed Ibrahim disclosed that sit-ins demanding Mr. Morsy’s reinstatement would be “legally” dispersed, following complaints from local residents. Apart from Nasr city, pro-Morsy supporters have also converged at Al Nahda square, opposite the Cairo University. The minister also pledged that a fresh effort would be mounted to counter militants in Sinai – apparently sympathetic to President Morsy – who have killed over 20 policemen and soldiers after the military takeover on July 3.

Condemning the overnight carnage, the Brotherhood is claiming that a pro-Mubarak old-guard has begun to retake the state following the coup. The Brotherhood has been particularly piqued by Friday’s judicial order that has charged Mr. Morsy with conspiring to undertake a violent jail break with the help of Palestinian Hamas in 2011, in the midst of the anti-Mubarak uprising in that year. Gehad El-Haddad, a Brotherhood spokesman, was quoted as saying that the military’s move would “only help strengthen the realisation that the Mubarak state is back.”

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