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Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Scores Killed in Crackdown on Morsi Supporters

CAIRO â€" Egyptian security forces killed scores of protesters and wounded hundreds of others on Wednesday in a daylong assault on two sit-ins by Islamist supporters of the ousted president, Mohamed Morsi, that set off waves of violence in the capital, Cairo, and across the country.

By afternoon, the interim government appointed by Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi had declared a one-month state of emergency across the country, suspending the right to a trial or due process. The declaration returned Egypt to the state of virtual martial law that prevailed for three decades under President Hosni Mubarak before he was forced to step down in 2011.

Mohamed ElBaradei, the interim vice president and a Nobel Prize-winning former diplomat who had lent his reputation to convincing the West of the military-appointed government’s democratic intentions, resigned in protest, a spokeswoman said.

The government imposed a 7 p.m. curfew across much of the country. Clashes and gunfire broke out even in well-heeled precincts of Cairo far from the sit-ins, and by afternoon streets across the capital were deserted. Outside Cairo, mobs of Islamists angry about the crackdown attacked a police station in the Giza governorate, burned down at least two churches in rural southern Egypt, and raged through the streets of Alexandria and other cities.

After a six-week standoff with the demonstrators, the scale and brutality of the attack â€" with armored vehicles, bulldozers, tear gas, snipers, live ammunition and birdshot â€" appeared to extinguish any hope of a political reconciliation that might persuade Mr. Morsi’s Islamist supporters to participate in a renewed democratic process under the auspices of the military-appointed government.

Instead, the crackdown was the clearest sign yet that the old Egyptian police state was re-emerging in full force, defying the protests of liberal members of the interim cabinet, Western threats of a cutoff of aid or loans, and the risk of a prolonged backlash of violence by Islamists angry about the theft of their democratic victories. It was a level of violence that might have crushed the January 2011 uprising that ousted Mr. Mubarak if military and police forces had unleashed it that time, although back then the security forces faced a broader spectrum of protesters before the struggles over the political transition divided the Islamists and their opponents against each other.

By late afternoon, the Egyptian health minister had put the number killed in violence across the country at about 130, including at least four policemen, and said about 900 had been injured. But the large number of dead and critically injured Egyptians whom New York Times reporters saw moving through various makeshift field hospitals in Cairo indicated that the final death toll would climb much higher.

At least one protester was burned alive in his tent. Many others were shot in the head and chest. Some of the dead appeared to be in their early teens, and young women assisting in a field hospital had stains on the hems of their abayas from the pools of blood covering the floor.

Tens of thousands of Morsi supporters had moved into the protest camps, many with their families. The fatalities in the attack included the 17-year-old daughter of a prominent Islamist lawmaker in the dissolved Parliament, Mohamed el-Beltagy.

“This is the beginning of a systematic crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, other Islamists and other opponents of a military coup,” said Emad Shahin, a professor of political science at the American University on Cairo. “It is an attempt to begin a new phase of a police state under military control behind a civilian facade â€" this is what they are trying to do.”

As for the American threats to cut off aid or block international loans, Professor Shahin said, no Egyptians â€" generals, liberals, Islamists or scholars â€" ever took them seriously. “In the end, the West will back the winning side,” he said. “That is how dictators think, and to a certain extent it is true.”

A spokesman for President Obama said the United States was continuing to review the $1.5 billion in aid it gives Egypt, most of it in the form of military equipment. The spokesman, Josh Earnest, said the violence “runs directly counter to pledges from the interim government to pursue reconciliation” with the Islamists.

He said the United States condemned the renewal of the state of emergency and urged respect for basic rights, like the freedom of assembly and peaceful demonstrations. But he stopped short of writing off the interim government, and said the United States would continue to remind the government of its promises and urge it “to get back on track.”

The Islamists vowed to continue their fight. Speaking to journalists after the death of his daughter, Mr. Beltagy, the Islamist parliamentarian, declared, “The police state has come to an end,” and asserted that Egyptians across the country would rise up to defend democracy. The dead gave their lives “for the cause of God, for Egyptians to lead lives of dignity and honor.”

The attack began about 7 a.m. when a circle of police officers began firing tear gas at the protest camps and plowing down tents with bulldozers. The Egyptian Interior Ministry had said it planned to choke off the protests gradually, at first by cutting off supplies of food and water, blocking new entry to the sites and leaving one safe exit for those who sought to leave.

But by about 8 a.m., the smaller sit-in, near Cairo University, had been demolished in a cloud of tear gas. At the larger sit-in, near the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque, several thousand appeared trapped inside with no safe exit as snipers fired down on those attempting to flee, and riot police officers with tear gas and birdshot closed in from all sides.

There was no evidence that the Islamists had stockpiled weapons inside the encampment, as Egyptian state media had claimed. Instead, Islamists converging on Rabaa from around Cairo hurriedly broke pavement into rocks or mixed Molotov cocktails for hurling at the police. A few were armed with makeshift clubs, or sought to use garbage pail lids or even a swimming kickboard as shields.

For a time in the late afternoon, the Islamists succeeded in pushing the police back far enough to create an almost safe passage to a hospital building on the edge of what remained of their camp. They had moved cars into place as fortifications, and two long rows of men were passing stones hand to hand to try to build new barricades.

The passage was safe except for a roughly 20-yard stretch in front of the hospital doors, where snipers still fired down from both sides. A series of Islamist marchers from around the city were able to enter the encampment, bolstering its numbers even as the shooting continued.

But shortly before dusk, soldiers and police officers launched a renewed push, seizing control of the hospital and tearing down the last tents and central stage erected at the core of the camp. The protesters had nowhere left to hide, said Morad Ali, a Muslim Brotherhood spokesman who had been inside the camp, and they were forced at last to flee.

Journalists were also caught in the violence. Sky News, the British satellite television service, said one of its veteran cameramen, Mick Deane, was killed. The circumstances were not clear.

Mohamed Soltan, a spokesman for the protesters, told Al Jazeera that a cameraman working with the protesters had been shot and killed by a sniper while filming on a stage. There was no official confirmation of the shooting.

Egyptian state television sought to downplay the police violence, beginning the day with reports that the camps were being cleared “in a highly civilized way.” Later, state television broadcast footage of what appeared to be an Islamist wielding an assault rifle.

After an emergency meeting in the midday, the interim government issued a statement praising the security forces for their courage and restraint while blaming the Islamists for any loss of life.

“The government holds these leaders fully responsible for any spilled blood, and for all the rioting and violence going on,” the statement said.

The government also renewed its pledge to pursue a military-based political blueprint for the country’s future in “a way that strives not to exclude any party from participation.”

Mayy El Sheikh contributed reporting from Cairo, and Alan Cowell from London.