Supporters of ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi flee during a clash… (Manu Brabo / Associated…)
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.