Key Islamist group pulls army backing after dozens killed in Egypt

Salafist al-Nour party, which supporter Morsi’s ouster, turns against interim government after army open fire on Brotherhood adherents, killing 51

Supporters and opponents of Egypt's ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi clash on the 6 October bridge, near Maspero, where Egypt's state TV and radio station is located, in Cairo, Egypt, Friday, July 5, 2013. (Photo credit: AP/Khalil Hamra)
Supporters and opponents of Egypt's ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi clash on the 6 October bridge, near Maspero, where Egypt's state TV and radio station is located, in Cairo, Egypt, Friday, July 5, 2013. (Photo credit: AP/Khalil Hamra)

A hard-line group seen as a linchpin of the military-backed coalition ruling Egypt withdrew its support Monday, hours after the army opened fire on Muslim Brotherhood supporters, killing over 50.

A spokesman for the Salafist al-Nour party said the group was cutting off talks with the military on entering the interim government being formed after the ouster of president Mohammed Morsi last week.

The defection of Nour will be seen as a blow to the country’s interim rulers, who are fighting for legitimacy among Islamists in Egypt, many of whom supported Morsi. The Nour party didn’t explicitly indicate that it was in favor of restoring Morsi to power.

The Nour spokesman said the decision was in reaction to a “massacre” earlier in the day.

At least 51 Muslim Brotherhood supporters were killed by troops while trying to storm the Republican Guard headquarters in Cairo where they believed Morsi was being held under arrest. According to the Egyptian state news agency, two police officers and a soldier were killed in the altercation and several soldiers were critically injured.

The news agency quoted Mohammed Sultan, head of emergency services, also saying 435 were wounded, mostly from live ammunition and birdshot.

The military said it was protecting the military installation and personnel from an attack by gunmen among the protesters. Morsi’s supporters said the military’s attack on their days-long sit-in was unprovoked.

Citing the military, Egyptian state television reported that the soldiers opened fire in response to a “terrorist” attack on the compound, which has been the target of previous attempts by Muslim Brotherhood supporters to free Morsi.

The Egyptian interim government expressed “deep regret” for those killed in the violence. The administration said in a statement on state TV that a committee was formed to investigate the incidents.

After the clashes, the Brotherhood called for an “uprising” against the military and urged international intervention in Egypt to prevent the situation from spiraling out of control.

In the face of “those trying to steal their revolution with tanks,” the only option open to “the great people of Egypt” is insurrection, the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm said in the statement, AFP reported.

The Brotherhood further called on ”the international community and international groups and all the free people of the world to intervene to stop further massacres… and prevent a new Syria in the Arab world.

Nour, the second-largest Islamist party in Egypt behind the more moderate Brotherhood, said it had decided to back the military during last Wednesday’s takeover to avoid bloodshed. On Saturday, it wielded its influence by nixing the appointment of secular reformist Mohammed ElBaradei as interim prime minister.

Egyptian Salafist al-Nour party leader Younes Makhioun (photo credit: image capture from YouTube)
Egyptian Salafist al-Nour party leader Younes Makhioun (photo credit: image capture from YouTube)

The Salafist party once eschewed electoral politics, but rose to prominence in the first parliamentary elections after the 2011 deposition of president Hosni Mubarak and won nearly a quarter of the seats in parliament. Since the elections, the Nour party has striven toward reaching a compromise between liberals and Islamists for the sake of national stability.

Egypt has been wracked by mass protests and counterprotests in the week since opponents to Morsi took to the streets by the hundreds of thousands and called for his resignation. Following Morsi’s forced resignation on Wednesday in a military coup, Muslim Brotherhood supporters and secular opponents to the Islamist president have engaged in bloody clashes across Egypt.

Close to 100 have died and over 1,000 have been injured in the week since the latest bout of clashes began.

On Monday, Army Col. Ahmed Mohammed Ali said police and troops guarding the Republican Guard complex came under “heavy gunfire” at around 4 a.m. and attackers on rooftops opened fire with guns and molotov cocktails. Along with the soldier and two policemen, 42 in the security forces were wounded, eight critically, he said.

He underlined that the troops had the right to defend the installation and that the protest “was no longer peaceful.” He pointed out that suspected Islamists have carried out coordinated armed attacks on several military facilities in recent days in the Sinai Peninsula.

One witness, university student Mirna el-Helbawi, also said gunmen loyal to Morsi opened fire first, including from the roof of a nearby mosque. El-Helbawi, 21, lives in an apartment overlooking the scene.

Supporters of Morsi, however, said the security forces fired on hundreds of protesters, including women and children, at the sit-in encampment as they performed early morning prayers.

“They opened fire with live ammunition and lobbed tear gas,” said Al-Shaimaa Younes, who was at the sit-in. “There was panic and people started running. I saw people fall.”

A Muslim Brotherhood spokesman, Mourad Ali, denied any Morsi supporters fired first and said the military had warned protesters it will break up the sit-in.

Abu Ubaida Mahmoud, a religion student from Al-Azhar University, said he had been praying when the sit-in’s security teams began banging on metal barricades in warning. He then saw troops coming out of the Guard complex.

“The number of troops that came from inside was stunning,” said Mahmoud, who was wounded in the hand. The troops opened fire and “I saw injuries in the chest, the neck, the head and the arm,” he said.

A guard at a nearby bank said security forces first moved in on the encampment firing tear gas, then he heard gunfire, though who couldn’t tell who was firing. He said that over recent days the Morsi protesters had imposed their control on the surrounding district and were clearly armed.

At field hospitals set up Morsi supporters, at least six dead bodies were shown laid out on the ground, some with severe wounds, in video aired by Al-Jazeera TV. The bodies had been draped with an Egyptian flag and pictures of Morsi. Pools of blood covered the floor and doctors struggled to deal with gaping wounds among some of the hundreds injured.

Egyptian state TV showed images provided by the military of the scene of the sit-in amid the melee. Dozens of protesters were shown pelting troops with rocks and setting tires on fire. Soldiers in riot gear and carrying shields formed lines a few meters (yards) away.

A fire raged from an apartment in a building overlooking the clashes. Images showed men throwing spears from atop nearby building rooftops. Other protesters were lobbing fire bombs at the troops. It was not clear at what stage in the melee the footage was filmed. Security officers were showing cameras bullet casings, and troops were carrying injured colleagues.

By the afternoon, troops moved in and cleared the sit-in site and blockades on the road. The site of the early morning clashes, a strip of road about a kilometer long (about half a mile), was covered with rocks, shattered glass, shoes, clothes, prayer rugs and personal photographs. A big Morsi banner remained hoisted in front of the Republican Guards’ building. On the ground below it, graffiti read: “Where are our votes?”

Interim President Adly Mansour called for restraint and ordered a judicial inquiry into the killings. Significantly, the statement from his office echoed the military’s version of events, noting that the killings followed an attempt to storm the Republican Guard’s headquarters.

Prosecutors in Cairo also ordered the closure of the Brotherhood party’s headquarters amid investigations into a cache of weapons found there, according to the official Middle East News Agency.

El-Tayeb, the sheik of Al-Azhar also called for an independent investigation into the shooting and for the release of all those detained in recent days, referring to five Brotherhood leaders detained since Morsi’s fall.

Morsi supporters have been holding rallies and a sit-in outside the Republican Guard building and elsewhere around Cairo since the military deposed Morsi on Wednesday. The military chief replaced Morsi with an interim president until presidential elections are held. The transition plan is backed by liberal and secular opponents of Morsi, and had been also supported by Nour and both Muslim and Christian religious leaders.

Morsi’s supporters refuse to recognize the change in leadership and insist Morsi be reinstated, and have vowed to continue their sit-ins outside the Republican Guard building as well as at a nearby mosque.

Morsi’s opponents are also holding rival rallies. They say the former president lost his legitimacy by mismanaging the country and not ruling democratically, leading to a mass revolt that began June 30, the first anniversary of Morsi’s assumption of power.

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