CAIRO, Egypt – The death toll from weekend clashes between supporters of Egypt’s ousted president and security forces backed by armed civilians in Cairo has risen to 72, the deadliest single outbreak of violence since the army deposed the Islamist Mohammed Morsi in a July 3 coup, a health ministry official said on Sunday.
Khaled el-Khateeb, head of the ministry’s emergency and intensive care department, said another eight died in clashes in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria.
A total of 792 people were wounded in both incidents, which spanned Friday and early Saturday.
The Cairo violence took place when pro-Morsi protesters sought to expand their sit-in camp by moving onto a nearby main boulevard, only to be confronted by police and armed civilians.
Authorities concede that the vast majority of the dead in Cairo were demonstrators, but the Interior Ministry says some policemen were wounded and it is not clear if civilians who sided with police were among the dead.
The extent of the bloodshed pointed to a rapidly building confrontation between the country’s two camps, sharply divided over the coup that removed Egypt’s first freely elected president following protests by millions of Egyptians demanding he step down.
Authorities talk more boldly of making a move to end weeks of protests by Morsi’s Islamist supporters. At the same time, the Islamists are growing more assertive in challenging security forces as they try to win public backing for their cause.
Officials from Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood and their allies decried what they called a new “massacre” against their side, only weeks after July 8 clashes with army troops in Cairo that left more than 50 Morsi supporters dead.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said that he spoke to Egyptian authorities, saying it is “essential” they respect the right to peaceful protest. He called on all sides to enter a “meaningful political dialogue” to “help their country take a step back from the brink.”
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also asked security forces to “act with full respect for human rights” and demonstrators to “exercise restraint.”
But neither side has shown much taste for reconciliation. Islamists staunchly reject the new leadership and insist the only possible solution to the crisis is to reinstate Morsi. Meanwhile, the interim leadership is pushing ahead with a fast-track transition plan to return to a democratically elected government by early next year.
The military-backed authorities appear confident of public support for a tougher hand after millions turned out for nationwide rallies Friday called by army chief Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi as a mandate against “terrorism and violence.”
Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim, who is in charge of police, took an uncompromising stance in a news conference after the violence. He accused the pro-Morsi side of provoking bloodshed to win sympathy.
“We didn’t go to them, they came to us – so they could use what happened for political gain,” he said. Ironically, Ibrahim is a Morsi appointee, and his then-boss praised him and the force after police killed dozens of anti-government protesters in the city of Port Said earlier this year.
“The Ministry of Interior never has and never will fire on any Egyptian,” he added, saying police only shot tear gas in Saturday’s violence.
Despite the heavy death toll, the interior minister suggested authorities could move against the two main pro-Morsi protest camps in Cairo: weeks-old sit-ins, one outside the Rabaah al-Adawiya mosque in eastern Cairo and another in Nahda Square near the main campus of Cairo university.
He depicted the encampments as a danger to the public, pointing to a string of nine bodies police have said were found nearby in recent days. Some had been tortured to death, police have said, apparently by members of the sit-ins who believed they were spies.
“Soon we will deal with both sit-ins,” Ibrahim said.
Interim Vice-President Mohamed ElBaradei, a longtime pro-democracy campaigner who backed the military’s ouster of Morsi, raised one of the few notes of criticism of Saturday’s bloodshed.
“I highly condemn the excessive use of force and the fall of victims,” he wrote in a tweet, though he did not directly place blame for the use of force. He added that he is “working very hard and in all directions to end this confrontation in a peaceful manner.”
But the image of the Islamists as dangerous and not the peaceful protesters they contend they are has had a strong resonance. Over past weeks, there have been cases of armed Islamist Morsi backers attacking opponents – though the reverse also has occurred. Before Saturday, some 180 people had been killed in clashes nationwide.
© The Associated Press, 2013