CAIRO — Armed supporters of deposed Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi fought pitched battles Friday with crowds that had favored his overthrow in what appeared to be worrisome signs of open conflict between the two sides.
Supporters marching toward Tahrir Square, the heart of the anti-Morsi movement, opened fire on Morsi opponents with rifles. The anti-Morsi demonstrators, who’ve occupied the square for the last week and have been celebrating his overthrow since it happened Wednesday, responded with gunfire and fireworks.
It was uncertain how many people had been hurt in the melee. The Health Ministry reported that 10 people had been killed nationwide and about 200 had been injured.
Ayman Ahmed, 26, a banker, said he’d seen people fall to the ground during the confrontation near Tahrir, though he couldn’t say whether they’d been hurt.
Elsewhere in Cairo, the Egyptian military and police officers had met Morsi supporters with gunfire, killing at least one and injuring scores of others.
In what Morsi’s supporters called a “Day of Rejection,” thousands took to the streets across the country and were confronted by the nation’s security forces. Throughout the day, military helicopters buzzed low over the supporters, drawing a roar of anger with each pass.
Mohammed Badie, the supreme leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, who was thought to have been arrested Thursday, re-emerged Friday at the protests and offered to engage in talks with the military. But such talks would happen only after Morsi had been reinstated as president, he said, something that seemed highly unlikely.
In Cairo, the Morsi supporters first moved toward the headquarters of the Republican Guard, where protesters suspected the ousted president was being held, prompting the guards and police to fire to fend off the crowds, killing at least one person.
How many Morsi supporters had turned out nationwide wasn’t known. The military has shut down television stations that are sympathetic to Morsi, blacking out what was happening in the provinces.
How severe the violence would become was on everyone’s mind, and many feared the worst, noting that the military’s decision to open fire, the exchange of gunfire near Tahrir Square and the Islamists’ willingness to go on the offensive and vow holy war seemed to portend a lengthy period of instability and, perhaps, Egyptians killing Egyptians.
To be sure, the rallies for Morsi were far smaller than those of the hundreds of thousands who cheered the military’s decision to force him from office Wednesday, but their emotions were intense.
In the Sinai, jihadists armed with advanced weapons smuggled from places such as Libya said that even though they weren’t big fans of Morsi, the military’s decision to remove him from office was an act of war. They attacked several military checkpoints in the early morning hours, killing at least one soldier and wounding three others, according to Dr. Abdel Wahab, the manager of Arish hospital, near the scene.
The battle wasn’t over, the fighters said.
“They are against the military rule and will not forget the brutality of the police who tortured them and detained their wives and children, during Mubarak and the military’s rule,” said Sheikh Ibrahim al Menei, tribal leader of Swarkeh, who witnessed the overnight attacks. “Morsi represented a buffer between them and the military, and in a way pitied them and understood their plight. Now these Salafi jihadi groups feel betrayed furthermore by the coup and have vowed to continue attacks on the military and Israel until he is reinstated.”
According to Gen. Sameh Bishady, the head of North Sinai security, clashes began around 2:30 a.m., when attackers armed with heavy weaponry – including mortars, anti-aircraft guns mounted on pickups, rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns – lunged toward the military checkpoints. Military aircraft began flying overhead around 3 a.m., and the situation remained tense throughout the day.
Even those who lead Salafist groups and claimed not to want violence said they couldn’t assure Egyptians that other rogue groups would follow their lead.
“We never believed in democracy or ballot boxes, and according to our Shariah, such a Western-tailored system is never acceptable,” said Mohamed al Zawahiri, a prominent Salafist. “Many Islamists went with this so-called democracy and beat the liberals fair and square at their game. Then the military, backed by the U.S., turned the table with this coup, which will blow up the country beyond belief, and the region.”
In Cairo, a surge of people moved toward troops stationed behind barbed wire and tanks at the Republican Guard headquarters when shooting began around 3 p.m., according to witnesses and video posted of the incident. As the crowds ran back, a man lay on his side with a gunshot wound to the left side of his head. Witnesses said he’d been carrying a Morsi poster.
The Muslim Brotherhood retreated about a mile toward Rabaa, the Cairo district that’s been the gathering place for Morsi’s supporters. There, several were drenched in blood, either because they were victims of pellet shots or they’d helped carry out the roughly 100 wounded.
Walid el Halali, 33, a Ministry of Investment employee, was among them. He said the police and Republican Guards had fired on the crowd. He struggled to talk, a victim of four pellet shots, including one to his mouth.
“People have died. I saw someone’s brains on the ground,” he said.
In Morsi’s hometown of Zagazig, about an hour north of Cairo, supporters and opponents clashed on the street, wounding dozens.
Despite the rampant violence, the newly named technocratic civilian government attempted to move forward. The interim president, Adly Mansour, issued a decree appointing Judge Aly Aoud Saleh as his constitutional adviser and Judge Mostafa Hegazy as his political adviser. He also dissolved the Islamist-based smaller chamber of Parliament, the Shura Council.
But the government faced setbacks outside Egypt. The African Union suspended Egypt’s membership, citing a “military coup.”
Fahmy and Ismail are McClatchy special correspondents.