CAIRO – Egypt lurched into dangerous new terrain Monday as an angry and bloodied Muslim Brotherhood called for an “uprising” against the new order, and the head of Egypt’s top Islamic authority warned that the country was headed toward “civil war,” after security forces opened fire on supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi in the early morning hours.
In one of the deadliest days of political violence since Hosni Mubarak was overthrown more than two tumultuous years ago, Egyptian soldiers Monday fired on protesters as they massed in front of the military headquarters, where they believe Morsi – ousted by the military Wednesday – is being held under house arrest, according to witnesses and security officials.
A Health Ministry spokeswoman said 51 people were killed and 435 were wounded in the shootings. Military officials said that they responded after being fired upon by protesters and that one soldier was killed and 42 were injured.
Interim President Adly Mansour issued a decree late Monday that set the parameters for a referendum on a revised constitution within about 4 1/2 months, parliamentary elections within about six months and presidential elections after that. The measures appeared aimed at lending some stability to a situation that threatened to spiral out of control.Both the military establishment and the Muslim Brotherhood pleaded their cases to the Egyptian people, each swearing it was the innocent victim.
Islamist witnesses, including many members of the Muslim Brotherhood, said the shootings started unprovoked as protesters were reciting dawn prayers in front of Cairo’s Republican Guard headquarters.
Security officials said members of the pro-Morsi camp attacked first.
“We did not attack protesters; we were rather defending a military facility,” said Ahmed Ali, a spokesman for the military. “They moved on us to provoke our soldiers and create this violent scene.”
Regardless of who fired the first shots, the violence shocked Egyptians and threw the nation’s shaky post-coup order into further disarray, as important factions pulled out of the coalition that lent broad unity to the effort to oust Morsi, who led the country for 368 days.
The ultraconservative Salafist Nour party, the only Islamist political bloc to support Morsi’s ouster, said it would abandon negotiations over who should take over as prime minister to protest what it called a “massacre.”
The violence Monday started before dawn, witnesses said, and continued as the sun rose above Cairo. Morsi supporters said they had been praying when the tumult began.
Witnesses described a scene of panic, with live fire, birdshot and tear gas seemingly coming at them from all directions. A doctor directing a field hospital for the wounded said many of the dead had gunshot wounds to the head and back, and sticky pools of blood were visible on the ground at the scene hours after the attack.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party issued a statement calling for an “uprising against those who want to steal the revolution with tanks” and asking the world to prevent a “new Syria.”
Meanwhile, the main Tamarod activist group, which organized the massive protests last week that led to Morsi’s removal, called for the Brotherhood’s political wing to be dissolved and its leadership barred from political life. That treatment, Tamarod said on Twitter, would echo the ban placed on former president Hosni Mubarak’s political party after the 2011 Egyptian revolution.
The Obama administration on Monday called on the military to exercise “maximum restraint responding to protesters” but said it was disinclined to suspend military aid to the Arab world’s most populous country.