CAIRO – Egypt's military-backed government tightened a crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood on Wednesday, ordering the arrest of its revered leader in a bid to choke off the group's campaign to reinstate President Mohammed Morsi one week after an army-led coup.
The Brotherhood denounced the warrants for the arrest of Mohammed Badie and nine other leading Islamists for inciting violence Monday that left dozens dead, saying "dictatorship is back" and vowing it will never work with the interim rulers.
Leaders of the Brotherhood are believed to be taking refuge somewhere near a continuing sit-in by its supporters at the Rabaah al-Adawiya Mosque in eastern Cairo, but it is not clear whether Badie also is there.
The Brotherhood is outraged by the overthrow of Morsi, one of its own, and demands nothing less than his release from detention and his reinstatement as president. Security agencies have already jailed five leaders of the Brotherhood, including Badie's powerful deputy, Khairat el-Shaiter, and shut down its media outlets.
The prosecutor general's office said Badie, another deputy, Mahmoud Ezzat, senior member Mohammed El-Beltagy and popular preacher Safwat Hegazy are suspected of instigating the clashes with security forces outside a Republican Guard building near the mosque Monday that killed 54 people – most of them Morsi supporters – in the worst bloodshed since he was ousted.
The Islamists have accused the troops of gunning down protesters, while the military blamed armed backers of Morsi for attempting to storm a military building.
The warrants highlight the armed forces' zero-tolerance policy toward the Brotherhood, which was banned under authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak.
"This just signals that dictatorship is back," said Brotherhood spokesman Ahmed Aref. "We are returning to what is worse than Mubarak's regime, which wouldn't dare to issue an arrest warrant of the general leader of the Muslim Brotherhood."
The Brotherhood's refusal to work with the new interim leaders underscored the difficulties they face in trying to stabilize Egypt and bridge the deep fissures that have opened in the country during Morsi's year in office.
Morsi has not been seen since the July 3 coup, but Foreign Ministry spokesman Badr Abdel-Atti gave the first official word on him in days, saying he is in a safe place and is being treated in a "very dignified manner." No charges have been leveled against him, Abdel-Atti said.
"For his own safety and for the safety of the country, it is better to keep him. ... Otherwise, consequences will be dire," he added.
Badie had appeared at the Rabaa al-Adawiya rally Friday, a day after an earlier arrest warrant against him was issued, also accusing him of inciting violence.
On Wednesday night, he delivered a message to the crowd through a senior Brotherhood leader, an indication that he didn't want to make an appearance and endanger his security. He spoke of Monday's violence, calling the troops that carried it out "traitors."
After a week of violence and mass demonstrations, Egyptians were hoping that Wednesday's start of Ramadan would calm the streets. The sunrise-to-sunset fast cuts down on daytime activity, although there were fears of unrest at night.
Late Wednesday, gunmen in a pickup truck opened fire on the convoy of a top military commander, Gen. Ahmed Wasfi, in the Sinai town of Rafah, near the border with Gaza, drawing fire from the accompanying troops, security officials said.
Wasfi escaped unharmed, but a 5-year-old girl was killed in the clashes, said the officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media. One gunman was arrested.
Meanwhile, more than 1,000 Morsi supporters protested late Wednesday outside the presidential palace, where his opponents have continued to hold their ground, even after his ouster.
Under heavy military guard, the pro-Morsi demonstrators chanted against el-Sissi, the defense minister, shouting, "What el-Sissi? We stepped over bigger shots." After less than hour, they left the area peacefully.