CAIRO -- Clerics from Egypt’s top religious institution attempted to end a siege Saturday at a Cairo mosque, where Muslim Brotherhood supporters hunkered inside as mobs cursed them from the streets amid the rattle of automatic weapons fire.
Clerics from Al Azhar, Sunni Islam’s most revered university, hurried through tear gas and entered Al Fatih mosque in Ramses Square. Police fired into the air to push back crowds at the entrance as military officers and the clerics tried to negotiate an end to the clash.
Hundreds of Brotherhood supporters and anti-military protesters took cover in the mosque and turned it into a makeshift field hospital during demonstrations on Friday. They refused to leave the building, fearing they would be attacked by security forces and vigilantes. Egyptian media reported that both sides exchanged fire after a gunman purportedly shot at police from the mosque’s minaret.
“The government seeks reconciliation but not with those whose hands have been polluted by blood and who have defiled the law,” said interim Prime Minister Hezam Beblawi.
The standoff came as Egypt’s army-backed government announced it was considering banning the Brotherhood, which until a coup last month that toppled Islamist President Mohamed Morsi was a powerful political voice. Security forces, which killed more than 600 Brotherhood supporters and anti-military protesters on Wednesday, appear intent on crushing the Islamist organization.
The scene at Al Fatih mosque was a troubling indication that vigilante groups, some known as Popular Committees, were emerging to support the army against the Brotherhood. For much of the day, security forces did not prevent mobs from massing around the mosque or from beating a number of people as they exited the building toward police trucks.
“This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be,” said Hamdi Abdelgelil, who stood in the courtyard of the mosque as men with sticks beat a man attempting to leave the mosque. The man retreated back inside, running up blood-speckled steps.
“This is not Egypt. Where is the security?” said Abdelgelil, shaking his head. “These people [the army] are supposed to be our masters, but we look like barbarians.”
Egypt’s Health Ministry announced Saturday that 173 protesters and 57 policemen were killed in nationwide clashes Friday. One of those reported dead was the son of Brotherhood Supreme Guide Mohammed Badie.
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Special correspondent Ingy Hassieb contributed to this report