CAIRO — Prosecutors opened an investigation of ousted President Mohammed Morsi on charges including murder and conspiracy with the Palestinian militant group Hamas, fueling tensions amid a showdown in the streets between tens of thousands of backers of the military and supporters calling for the Islamist leader’s reinstatement.
Clashes between Morsi supporters and opponents erupted outside a major mosque in the coastal city of Alexandria, with the two sides throwing stones and firing birdshot at each other. Police and army forces lobbed tear gas and deployed soldiers but were unable to break up the fighting, which killed two people and injured 24. Minor scuffles erupted in a Cairo neighborhood and in the Nile Delta city of Damietta with at least 18 injured, according to health officials.
The announcement of the case against Morsi, which is likely to pave the way to a formal indictment, was the first word on his legal status since the military deposed him on July 3. For more than three weeks, the Islamist leader has been held by the military in a secret location, incommunicado.
Supporters of Morsi denied the charges against him, calling them politically motivated but vowed to keep their protests peaceful.
On Friday, a spokesman for Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood said the move to prosecute Morsi showed “the complete bankruptcy of the leaders of the bloody coup.”
Egyptians “reject the return of the dictatorial police state and all the repression, tyranny and theft it entails,” Ahmed Aref said in a statement.
The accusations are connected to a prison break during the 2011 uprising against autocrat Hosni Mubarak in which gunmen attacked a prison northwest of Cairo, freeing prisoners including Morsi and around 30 other figures from his Muslim Brotherhood. The prosecutors allege Morsi and the Brotherhood worked with Hamas to carry out the break, in which 14 guards were killed.
The U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki expressed deep concern about reports of Morsi’s detention.
“I can’t speak to the specific charges. But we do believe that it is important that there be a process to work toward his release,” she said. “Clearly, this process should respect the personal security of him and take into account the volatile political situation in Egypt and that’s where our focus is. We have conveyed publicly and privately that his personal security and treatment is of utmost importance.”
Massive crowds, meanwhile, poured into main squares in Cairo and other cities in support of the military after the army chief Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi called for rallies. El-Sissi said days earlier he hoped for a giant public turnout to give him a mandate to stop “violence and terrorism,” raising speculation he may be planning a crackdown on pro-Morsi protests.
At the same time, crowds of Islamist backers of Morsi massed at their own rallies, part of what the Brotherhood and its allies had previously said would be their biggest protests to date to demand the reinstatement of the president. El-Sissi’s call days earlier may have been in part aimed to overwhelm the Islamist numbers in Friday’s rallies, as each side tries to show the depth of its public support.
The rival shows of strength only deepen the country’s divisions since Morsi’s fall. Clashes and fistfights broke out between the rival camps in Alexandria, with two killed and 24 injured, according to health official Mohammed Abu Suleiman. Skirmishes also broke out in the Mediterranean coastal city of Damietta and a Cairo neighborhood that left a combined 18 injured, Health Ministry spokesman Khaled el-Khateeb said.
El-Sissi deposed Morsi after four days of giant protests by millions of Egyptians demanding the removal of the country’s first freely elected president following months of political standoff between him and the largely secular opposition. Since then, Islamists have been holding sit-ins and rallies daily.
State media and pro-military private TV stations have been fiercely promoting the el-Sissi rallies, pumping up a nationalist fervor.
El-Sissi’s portrait pervaded the crowds of tens of thousands in Cairo’s central Tahrir Square: the smiling general in sunglasses on posters proclaiming “the love of the people,” a combination photo of the general and a lion on lanyards hanging from people’s necks, a picture of his face photoshopped into a 1-pound note of currency.
“The people, the source of all power, mandate the army and police to purge terrorism,” read a giant banner stretched across one entrance to Tahrir. Three tanks guarded another street leading into the square, and helicopters swooped overhead.
Security was heavy after el-Sissi vowed to protect the rallies from attacks by rivals. Tanks guarded one entrance to Tahrir and police were stationed at other parts. “The people give their mandate,” read signs touted by many in the crowd.
“The army is here to protect the people, they don’t lie,” said Ezzat Fahmi, a 38-year-old in the crowd. He said el-Sissi had to call Friday’s rallies “so the entire world can see that the Egyptian people don’t want the Brotherhood anymore.”
Across town in eastern Cairo, thousands of pro-Morsi supporters packed a sit-in camp outside Rabaa al-Adawiyah mosque, chanting against el-Sissi and vowing to continue their push for Morsi’s return.MORE IN Wire News
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