Egypt erupted into violent chaos on Friday, raising doubts about the new authorities’ capacity to maintain order, as Islamists and other opponents of last month’s military takeover fought security forces and their civilian allies in street battles across the capital and other cities.
The country seemed to descend into anarchy. Terrified protesters caught in a cross-fire jumped or fell from an overpass in a panicked effort to escape. A gunfight erupted on the doorstep of a Four Seasons hotel. Men wielding guns and machetes — some backing the Islamists, others police supporters in civilian clothes, others simply criminals — roamed the streets of the capital and other cities, and it was often impossible to tell friend from foe.
Health Ministry officials put the civilian death toll for Friday at 27, but some news reports put it at more than 100, which would bring the death toll since Wednesday to nearly 750. In late afternoon more than 30 uncounted corpses were seen at a field hospital in a mosque near the center of the fighting, in Cairo’s Ramses Square. Defying a 7 p.m. curfew, antagonists battled there into the night, lit by an unchecked fire that consumed a nearby office building.The military-appointed government issued a statement declaring that the military, the police and the people were “standing together in the face of the treacherous terrorist scheme against Egypt of the Brotherhood organization.” But the extent of the mayhem cast doubt on its ability to deliver on its central promise of restoring order and security.
Just two days ago, the police had routed thousands of protesters from sit-ins in support of the ousted president, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, killing several hundred. The government suspended legal protections against arbitrary police action and authorized security forces to kill anyone who threatened a public facility. For many on Friday, however, shock at the scale of the bloodshed began to outweigh the threats. The violence began soon after noon prayers, as thousands of Islamists marched in a last defense against a return to the era of political exclusion, imprisonment and torture they endured under 60 years of military-backed dictatorship.
For the first time since the president’s removal six weeks ago, some non-Islamists stood with the Morsi supporters, sometimes risking their own lives as well.
“Where are we going with this?” one young man asked another watching at the edge of the Ramses Square battle. “Are we just going to fight one another endlessly?”
His friend replied that he had protested against President Morsi, and that the police had protected him from threats. But now they were killing the Islamists, he said. “They’re Egyptian too,” he said. “Why were we safe while they’re being killed by the police?”
The Western powers increased their criticism of the Egyptian military on Friday, but it appeared, once again, to have little effect. There was no sign that the chaos would end anytime soon. The Muslim Brotherhood, the main Islamist group behind Mr. Morsi, called for similar marches every day for the next week, and vowed to hold daily, nonviolent marches to Ramses Square for morning and evening prayers, declaring, in the words of Thomas Jefferson, that the bloodshed “irrigates the tree of liberty in Egypt.”
As they have since the ouster of Mr. Morsi, state and private news media cheered on the battle against the Brotherhood. “Egypt is fighting terrorism,” a deep voice intoned periodically over Egyptian state radio throughout the day; a similar slogan in English and Arabic flashed on state television.
ONtv, a private satellite network hostile to the Islamists, broadcast pictures of 60 detainees kneeling with bound hands in military custody. A headline on the screen described them as “militants.”
A government official holding them said that 40 of them had been captured by civilians near Ramses Square before being turned over to the military, and that among them were a few foreigners.
Appalled by the scenes of carnage, the Western powers stepped up their criticism of Egypt’s new government.
France and Germany called for an emergency meeting of European foreign ministers to respond to Egypt’s violence, and Catherine Ashton, the top diplomat for the European Union, urged “appropriate measures” to penalize the new government.
“The toll of death and injury is shocking,” Ms. Ashton said. “Responsibility for this tragedy weighs heavily on the interim government, as well as on the wider political leadership in the country.”
Islamists in Turkey, Tunisia and Pakistan organized protests against the crackdown. But in Saudi Arabia, a fierce foe of the Brotherhood, King Abdullah delivered a televised statement pledging support for what he described as a Egypt’s fight against “terrorism,” and he scolded the West for its criticism.
“The kingdom stands with Egypt and against all those who try to interfere with its internal affairs,” he said, adding: “Those who are interfering in its internal affairs are lighting the fire of strife and supporting the terrorism they had claimed to be fighting against.”
Outside Cairo, security officials said the police had broken up a pro-Morsi sit-in at the city of Qena, and that the military had killed protesters while breaking up another sit-in at the city of Suez. State news media reported that a crime wave had erupted in the security vacuum, with six banks robbed in Beni Suef and a museum looted in Minya.
In Cairo, marches denouncing the military takeover began at mosques around the city after noon prayers, and within an hour the city was all but paralyzed. Mr. Morsi’s supporters and civilian vigilantes opposing them both blocked roads, bridges, tunnels and highways.
Guns were visible in the hands of civilians on all sides, including a Morsi supporter filmed with a machine gun and peeking around the corner of the Four Seasons Hotel in Giza as a gunfight broke out.
In many places, heavily armed civilian supporters of the new government carried or fired their guns while soldiers and police watched nearby. In other cases, civilians hurling rocks or wielding sticks advanced against their opponents under the cover of police gunfire.
There also appeared to be provocateurs. At a pro-Morsi march, two masked men armed with machine guns seemed to pose as Islamists. First, they seemed to support a the march, herding passers-by into its ranks. But then they aimed their guns at the terrified protesters, who fled in fear.
Thousands had gathered at the center of the demonstrations, in Ramses Square, when the fighting there began. A small group of young people started throwing rocks at a nearby police station, and others quickly moved to try to stop them, even forming a human chain to hold them back.
Gunfire erupted from the police station soon after. Mohamed Abdel Salem, 19, said he happened to be walking by with a friend, Saed, 22, who was shot and killed by a police bullet. “I stayed after that,” he said. “Many died.”
A military helicopter hovered so low overhead that some men clutched their hats against the wind from its blades. “There are the mass killers, there they are,” the crowd chanted.
As the fighting continued into the night, news reports suggested the death toll around the country exceeded 100. News reports said at least two police officers had died.
Among the Islamists killed in Ramses Square was Dr. Khaled el-Banna, 30, the grandson of the Muslim Brotherhood’s founder, Hassan el-Banna, who was gunned down nearby in 1949.