As automatic gunfire echoed across Cairo, the standoff appeared to be sliding ever faster towards armed confrontation, evoking past conflict between militant Islamists and the state in the Arab world’s most populous nation.
While Western governments urged restraint after hundreds died when security forces cleared protest camps two days ago, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah endorsed the government’s tactics against the Muslim Brotherhood, saying yesterday his nation stood with Egypt in its battle against “terrorism”.
Army helicopters hovered low over supporters of Morsi’s Brotherhood in Ramses Square, the theatre of much of Friday’s bloodshed in Cairo, black smoke billowing from at least one huge blaze which lit up the night sky after sundown.
A Reuters witness saw the bodies of 27 people, apparently hit by gunfire and birdshot, wrapped in white sheets in a mosque. A Reuters photographer said security forces opened fire from numerous directions when a police station was attacked.
Men armed with automatic weapons appeared to be taking part in the Cairo protests. At Ramses Square, Reuters journalists saw three men with guns; protesters cheered when cars carrying gunmen arrived, another Reuters witness said.
“Sooner or later I will die. Better to die for my rights than in my bed. Guns don’t scare us anymore,” said Sara Ahmed, 28, a business manager who joined the demonstrators in Cairo. “It’s not about the Brotherhood, it’s about human rights.”
More than 30 people died in clashes elsewhere in Egypt. A security official said 24 policemen had been killed and 15 police stations attacked since late Thursday, underlining the increasing ferocity of the violence.
Egyptian state media has hardened its rhetoric against the Brotherhood invoking language used to describe militant groups such as al Qaeda and suggesting there is little hope of a political resolution to the crisis.
“Egypt fighting terrorism,” said a logo on state television.
Showing no sign of wanting to back down, the Muslim Brotherhood announced a further week of nationwide protests.
The army deployed armoured vehicles on major roads around the capital and the Interior Ministry said police would use live ammunition against anyone threatening public buildings.
Anger on the streets was directed at army commander General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who moved against Morsi last month after street rallies against his administration that had been dogged by accusations of incompetence and partisanship.
“The people want the butcher executed,” said Mustafa Ibrahim, 37, referring to Sisi, as he marched with a crowd of thousands on downtown Cairo under blazing summer sun.
Emergency services said eight protesters were killed in clashes in the Mediterranean town of Damietta, five in Fayoum south of Cairo, four in the Suez Canal city of Ismailia and four in the Nile delta town of Tanta. Eight people were killed in Alexandria, Egypt’s second city, and four in Port Said.
A police conscript was shot dead in the north of Cairo, state news agency MENA reported. Nile TV showed video of a gunman among Islamist protesters firing from a city bridge.
Witnesses said Morsi supporters ransacked a Catholic church and a Christian school in the city of Malawi. An Anglican church was also set ablaze. The Brotherhood, which has been accused of inciting anti-Christian sentiment, denies targeting churches.