CAIRO -- At least 40 supporters of deposed President Mohamed Morsi were killed by police and other gunmen early Saturday as security forces moved to break up a monthlong demonstration by thousands of Islamists camped outside a Cairo mosque.
The death toll could rise. Al Jazeera reported that at least 75 people had been killed and thousands injured in predawn clashes that followed warnings from the army for Morsi’s backers, including his Muslim Brotherhood movement, to disperse from the Rabaa al Adawiya mosque.
“Over 100 fathers, brothers, sons, husbands have been lost today,” said Gehad Haddad, a Brotherhood spokesman, in a tweet. “Their loved ones [are] weeping [for] them but vowing not to let their deaths be in vain.”
The casualty numbers could not be independently verified. But the deaths appear to mark a perilous turning point in the battle between Islamists and the new military-backed government over the nation’s political future. Morsi was overthrown in a coup on July 3 and his supporters are demanding his reinstatement.
The country’s volatile atmosphere -- tanks clattered and riot police gathered -- sharpened hours after state media reported that prosecutors had accused Morsi of espionage, murder and conspiring with the Palestinian militant group Hamas. The allegations infuriated Morsi’s Islamist supporters, who cursed the military and chanted, “God is great.”
Gen. Abdel Fattah Sisi, commander of the armed forces, set the mood for a showdown when he vowed this week to crush what he called “terrorism and violence.” Even the police, once the reviled symbol of an oppressive state, were seen by many Egyptians as partners with the army against the Brotherhood and ultraconservative Islamists.
Military helicopters, in a bit of psychological warfare, dropped leaflets on Brotherhood supporters at Rabaa al Adawiya.
“Everything the armed forces do is for you [citizens] and holds no resentment for religion or humanity or any threat to life or freedom. So join us hand in hand,” the leaflets read. “We are not your enemies and you are not ours, we support you so you may support your country and not raise your weapon against your brother.”
The streets around Rabaa al Adawiya were streaked in tear gas, scattered with rocks and busy with ambulances, trucks and motorcycles ferrying the wounded to a field hospital near the mosque. Egyptian media reported that many of those killed and wounded were hit with live ammunition in the upper body. Security forces denied they fired bullets.
Saber Mohamed Hassan, a carpenter, stood with thousands outside the mosque, listening to preachers and vilifying the army.
“Sisi is either going to surrender or is insane with power enough to continue in his call for a civil war,” he said. “He might try to disperse the sit-in, but we have a million martyrs ready.”