CAIRO — Deadly clashes swept Egypt from its southern deserts to the Nile Delta, pushing the Arab world's most strategically important state toward a prolonged struggle between hard-line military men and Islamists who may be forced underground, only to turn more violent.
Security forces in Cairo stormed through clouds of smoke Wednesday to end sit-ins by thousands of supporters of deposed Islamist President Mohamed Morsi. The army-backed interim government offered no plan for reconciliation, and the bloodshed set the country on a dangerous path after more than two years of political unrest.
Mothers wailed for the dead and emergency law was imposed. The Health Ministry said 281 people were killed nationwide, including 43 police officers. The pro-Morsi Muslim Brotherhood movement said more than 300 died in the fighting, which swirled across bridges and beneath overpasses.
Protesters soaked tissues with vinegar to cut the sting of tear gas. Doctors at a makeshift hospital at Rabaa al Adawiya mosque, the larger of the two sit-in sites, donned gas masks and navigated floors slippery with blood.
While police attempted to impose order hours after the attacks, cracks widened in the government. Vice President Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, resigned in protest. The defection was a blow to Egypt's international reputation and a sign that hard-liners, some linked to the former police state of President Hosni Mubarak, were reemerging as the country's power brokers.
That prospect raised fears that those loyal to Morsi and the Brotherhood may go underground to plot militant attacks on government and tourism targets, similar to the bombings and assaults that killed hundreds in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Terrorism has been on the rise for months in the Sinai Peninsula.
Violence spread to Alexandria, Aswan, Assiut, Fayoum, Suez and elsewhere. In a foreshadowing of deepening strife and sectarianism, Egyptian media reported that more than a dozen Christian Coptic churches and monasteries had been attacked. Islamists have accused minority Christians of siding with the military.
The clashes between security forces and protesters were widely denounced by world leaders.
The U.S. condemned the violence and repeated its call for the interim government to use restraint. But there was little indication that Washington was preparing to shift its policy on Egypt.
"We have repeatedly called on the Egyptian military and security forces to show restraint and for the government to respect the universal rights of its citizens, just as we've urged protesters to demonstrate peacefully," said White House spokesman Josh Earnest.
The raid on the sit-ins was devastating for the Brotherhood, which has been in a precipitous fall since the coup last month that overthrew Morsi, the country's first freely elected president. In six weeks it has tumbled from the seat of power to an isolated organization whose leadership is in jail. Its most potent political play, the massive demonstrations at Cairo University and Rabaa al Adawiya, was obliterated by army bulldozers and police in riot gear.
"No one burns an entire country just to disperse a sit-in," said Mohammed Saeed, an accountant who quit work more than a month ago to join the pro-Morsi demonstrations. He, like many Morsi backers, stood bewildered amid the stench of tear gas and the rattle of gunfire.
But interim Prime Minister Hazem Beblawi said, "We found that matters had reached a point that no self-respecting state could accept." He blamed the Brotherhood for spreading "anarchy and attacks on hospitals and police stations."
He added: "God willing, we will continue. We will build our democratic, civilian state."
The central question now concerns the next move by Gen. Abdel Fattah Sisi, commander of the armed forces and Egypt's de facto leader. The general is regarded as a savior by millions of Egyptians for acting against the Brotherhood. He is not likely to want to tip the country, reeling from economic turmoil and in desperate need of foreign investment, into prolonged conflict.
The army wants to amend the Islamist-drafted constitution and hold parliamentary elections early next year. But the military also appears to be tightening its grip, this week naming new governors, at least 15 of whom are retired army or police generals.
Many Egyptians want Sisi to run for president, which could make him the next in a nearly uninterrupted line of leaders with military roots. But that could upset activist groups, including the prominent Rebel movement, which pushed for Morsi's ouster. The army repressively ruled Egypt for 17 months after the 2011 uprising that toppled Mubarak. Many liberals do not want that scenario repeated.
How Sisi and the Brotherhood react in coming days will influence the entire region. Islamists and secularists have been competing for control since autocrats such as Mubarak were forced from their palaces in Tunisia, Libya and Yemen. But so far the promise of the so-called Arab Spring has yet to deliver a version of political Islam acceptable to non-Islamist parties.
Such uncertainties helped lead to Morsi's downfall and to Wednesday's raids, which began just before 7 a.m. when a hot, sleepy Cairo was roused by helicopters, barrages of tear gas and the rattle of automatic weapons.
The government had threatened for weeks to storm the camps but delayed action several times over fears of widespread bloodshed, including the death of women and children. The sit-in at Cairo University was quickly dispersed as protesters ran through trees and into a nearby zoo to escape sniper fire.
Police encountered more resistance at Rabaa, where thousands of supporters had been camped in what grew into a tent city over the last six weeks. Security forces attacked the edges of the area, setting tents on fire. Cars burned, people fled down side streets, and helicopters buzzed overhead.
A Times reporter passed a dead protester, his feet drenched with blood, prayer beads and bullet casings scattered at his side. A startled security officer caught sight of the reporter and fired in her direction; she fled to safety toward an apartment building.
Into the afternoon, battles intensified around the perimeter of the mosque. Bandaged men ran with clubs, stones and homemade weapons trying to keep security forces from entering the center of the sit-in, where much of the tent city was flattened and in flames.
"I swear by God that if you stay in your homes, Abdel Fattah Sisi will embroil this country so that it becomes Syria," said Mohamed Beltagy, a Brotherhood leader, whose daughter was killed in the violence. "Abdel Fattah Sisi will push this nation to a civil war so that he escapes the gallows."
Men and women hammered on sidewalks and barriers to break off stones to carry with them. One woman, covered by a full face veil, held a box of rocks.
As women shrieked in the distance, protesters wearing hard hats and motorcycle helmets rushed over a nearby bridge, taking cover behind a charred minivan and hurling rocks at police. A loudspeaker attached to an armored personnel carrier warned protesters to "leave and go back to reason."
ElBaradei, who has been maligned by hard-liners for his calls for a peaceful resolution, saw no reason to continue in his position as vice president. In a resignation letter, the former diplomat and onetime head of the international nuclear watchdog agency wrote:
"I saw that there were peaceful ways to end this clash in society, there were proposed and acceptable solutions for beginnings that would take us to national consensus," he said. "It has become difficult for me to continue bearing responsibility for decisions that I do not agree with and whose consequences I fear. I cannot bear the responsibility for one drop of blood."
Police shut down railway service into Cairo, presumably to prevent Morsi's supporters in other areas from reaching the capital.
"We came to rescue the women and children," said Jihan Ibrahim, an English translator who had seen television images of Rabaa at home. "They are shooting them with bullets and weapons that are only used during war, and they are shooting to kill."
Um Muhammad Badawi Issa wept on the curb in front of a children's clothing shop. "My nephew was killed today in Rabaa," she said. "All my sons are in Rabaa; they can't get out."
Last night she had been with her two sons and nephew, who have been encamped in the square for two weeks.
She left late Tuesday night and came back Wednesday when she heard the news about her nephew, a father of one with another child on the way. He had been shot in the head.
"I never expected this," Issa said. "I would have hugged him tight; I wouldn't have left.
"Sisi turned out to be a traitor," she said.
Hassieb is a special correspondent.