Egypt’s capital descended into chaos Friday as vigilantes at neighbourhood checkpoints battled Muslim Brotherhood-led protesters denouncing the ouster of President Mursi and a deadly crackdown.
The fiercest street clashes Cairo has seen in more than two years of turmoil left at least 82 people dead, including 10 policemen.
The sight of residents firing at one another marked a dark turn in the conflict, as civilians armed with pistols and assault rifles fought protesters taking part in what the Muslim Brotherhood called a “Day of Rage” — ignited by anger at security forces for clearing two sit-in demonstrations Wednesday that sparked nationwide clashes in which more than 600 people died.
Supporters of Egypt's ousted President Mohammed Morsi clash with Egyptian security forces in Ramses Square, downtown Cairo, Egypt.- AP
Military helicopters circled overhead as residents furious with the Brotherhood protests pelted marchers with rocks and glass bottles. The two sides also fired on one another, sparking running street battles throughout the capital’s residential neighbourhoods.
Across the country, at least 72 civilians were killed, along with 10 police officers, security officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
Friday’s violence capped off a week that saw more than 700 people killed across the country — surpassing the combined death toll from two and a half years of violent protests since the ouster of long time leader Hosni Mubarak until the toppling of Mursi in a July 3 coup.
Unlike in past clashes between protesters and police, Friday’s violence introduced a combustible new mix, with residents and police in civilian clothing battling those participating in the Brotherhood-led marches.
Few police in uniform were seen as neighbourhood watchdogs and pro-Mursi protesters fired at one another for hours on a bridge that crosses over Cairo’s Zamalek district, an upscale island neighbourhood where many foreigners and ambassadors reside.
Friday’s violence erupted shortly after midday prayers when tens of thousands of Brotherhood supporters answered the group’s call to protest across Egypt in defiance of a military-imposed state of emergency following the bloodshed earlier this week.
Armed civilians manned impromptu checkpoints throughout the capital, banning Brotherhood marches from approaching and frisking anyone wanting to pass through.
By choosing Ramses Square as the focus of Friday’s demonstrations, the Brotherhood appeared to be trying to establish another protest site to replace the two forcibly cleared Wednesday — but this time in an area that cuts through the heart of Cairo. The area is near Tahrir Square, where the army put up barbed wire and deployed 30 tanks outside the Egyptian Museum overlooking the area as a buffer between the protesters and a small anti-Brotherhood encampment in the square.
Alia Mostafa of the Anti-coup Alliance, a group that works closely with the Brotherhood, said snipers were shooting down at protesters in the Ramses Square area.
“Police are firing live ammunition from the roof tops of the nearby police station,” she said.
There was little hope that an evening curfew would curb the violence as the Muslim Brotherhood called on Mursi’s supporters to stage daily protests.
Friday’s violence highlighted how dangerous the divisions in Egypt have become as similar battles played out in cities across the country, where people brandishing weapons attacked police and residents fired at one another.
Gunmen targeted police check points and at least 10 police stations came under attack. Egypt’s security forces were rocked by the country’s 2011 uprising that toppled Mubarak and have not fully recovered since.
In the canal city of Suez, 14 people were killed in clashes between protesters and security forces. In Egypt’s second-largest city of Alexandria, 10 people were killed during clashes between the two rival camps. Security officials said violence was also fierce in the province of Fayoum, just west of Cairo, where seven people were killed during an attempt to storm the main security building there, a security official said. Two policemen died in the attack.
More than 800 people were arrested in Friday’s clashes, including local Brotherhood leaders in the provinces. The group’s top figures are facing charges of inciting violence and some have been imprisoned for weeks. Mursi has been held at an undisclosed location and is facing a criminal investigation.