CAIRO — A six-week-old political standoff exploded on Wednesday as Egyptian police and soldiers fought supporters of the country’s ousted Islamist president.
The violence leaves the world’s most populous Arab nation even more bitterly divided — and, perhaps, more dangerously unstable — than before nationwide protests prompted the army to depose Mohamed Morsy on July 3.
On Thursday, an Egyptian Health Ministry spokesman said the nationwide death toll was up to 578, including 43 police, and 3,717 were injured.
Fighting broke out in other cities. Pro-Morsy Islamists reportedly burned 18 Coptic Christian churches in Upper Egypt.
The military-appointed interim government declared a month-long state of emergency and a nationwide dusk-to-dawn curfew.
The chaos erupted as police and troops moved against Morsy’s Muslim Brotherhood followers and other Islamists in two encampments sprawling over several blocks in separate sections of the capital.
That triggered running street battles amid tear gas and gunfire.
Both encampments were destroyed, with smoke rising from torched tents and other structures and streets littered with shredded Morsy posters, torn and bloodied clothing, and other debris.
By evening, bulldozers had moved into the camps. The main site, a virtual city that had housed thousands in the Rabaa section of Cairo, was set afire.
Residents surrounding the smaller sit-in at Nahda Square, near Cairo University, cheered and whistled approvingly as police moved in. Many had asked the military to remove the Islamists from their neighborhood.
The government defended its actions, claiming that its forces had been attacked and that they’d used only tear gas and not live ammunition. Mohammed Ibrahim, the minister of interior, said the “least amount of force” had been used. He banned future sit-ins.
“This state of mayhem and insecurity has come to an end,” said Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi, who praised police for what he called their restraint. Soldiers used bulldozers to demolish sandbag-topped brick barriers erected by Islamists.
Arabic graffiti on a statue there read: “Yes to Islamic rule, no to the rule of the (military) boot.”
Mohamed El-Baradei, a former United Nations nuclear-weapon chief, resigned as interim vice president in protest over the bloodshed. “The only ones who benefit from today’s events are the terrorists and the anarchists and the extremists,” he said.
Across Cairo, neighborhood watch groups sprang up to guard homes and businesses, as during Egypt’s 2011 revolution. Shops closed and some streets resembled war zones, with charred vehicles and burning tires.
Young men carrying wooden clubs checked passing cars, as wailing ambulances raced by.
A shaken Sharif Abu Taleb talked of the larger sit-in near Raba’a Adawiya mosque. “It’s bloody in there,” he said. A fellow protester said police “are shooting live rounds,” as gunfire rang out.
Among those killed were Brotherhood leader Mohamed Al Beltagy’s daughter, Asmaa, 17; Mike Deane, a cameraman for British-based Sky News; and an Egyptian journalist.
Egyptian television showed Morsy supporters using weapons against police and stockpiled guns and ammunition found at the Nahda Square sit-in.
Rail service was halted nationally, in an attempt to prevent Morsy supporters from quickly converging on the capital.
Islamists had vowed to maintain the two sit-ins until Morsy returned to office. “We won’t go to our home until we implement (Islamic law),” declared Ahmed Said, a lawyer.
“We are not supporting Morsy as a person, but the concept of democracy,” said Yasser Mohamed, 35, a radiologist. “Nothing is for free. We tasted freedom in the past year. People will give their life not to go back to military rule again.”
Amnesty International urged security forces to avoid more bloodshed. “Promises by the authorities to use lethal methods only as a last resort to disperse protesters appear to have been broken,” said Philip Luther, the group’s regional director.
But interim Prime Minister Hazem Beblawy said he was forced to remove the Islamists “to return the security and peace,” and insisted that security forces acted with restraint.
A leftist group, the Egyptian Popular Current, blamed the Brotherhood for the bloodshed by choosing “a standoff scenario with the state,” and accused it of attacking churches and police stations.
Betsy Hiel is the Tribune-Review’s foreign correspondent. Email her at [email protected]. McClatchy News Service contributed to this report.