CAIRO - Enraged Islamists pushed back against the toppling of President Mohammed Morsi, with tens of thousands of his supporters marching in Cairo on Friday to demand the reinstatement of Egypt’s first democratically elected leader.
Soldiers fired on protesters, crowds of Islamists descended on Morsi opponents in stone-throwing and gun-firing clashes, and armored vehicles deployed on bridges over the Nile in mayhem that left at least 21 dead.
Khaled el-Khatib, a Health Ministry official, says four people were killed near the Republican Guard building in Cairo, where troops opened fire on Morsi supporters marching on the building Friday afternoon.
In Cairo, another person was killed in clashes that erupted after nightfall when Islamists attacked Morsi opponents near Tahrir Square.
Four others died in the northern Sinai city of el-Arish, where Islamists stormed the main government building.
El-Khatib says 520 people nationwide have been wounded.
In a dramatic appearance — his first since Morsi’s ouster — the supreme leader of the Muslim Brotherhood defiantly vowed the president would return. “God make Morsi victorious and bring him back to the palace,” Mohammed Badie proclaimed from a stage before a crowd of cheering supporters at a Cairo mosque. “We are his soldiers we defend him with our lives.”
Badie addressed the military, saying it was a matter of honor for it to abide by its pledge of loyalty to the president, in what appeared to be an attempt to pull it away from its leadership that removed Morsi. “Your leader is Morsi … Return to the people of Egypt,” he said. “Your bullets are not to be fired on your sons and your own people.”
After nightfall, moments after Badie’s speech, a large crowed of Islamists surged across 6th October Bridge over the Nile toward Tahrir Square, where a giant crowd of Morsi’s opponents had been massed all day. Battles broke out there at near the neighboring state TV building with gunfire and stone throwing.
A fire burned on the bridge as Islamists sporting makeshift shields and wearing helmets they had brought in preparation traded stones with their opponents.
“They are firing at us, sons of dogs, where is the army,” one Morsi opponent shouted, as another was brought to medics with his jeans soaked in blood from wounds in his legs. Army troops deployed on another Nile bridge leading into Tahrir, sealing it off with barbed wire and armored vehicles.
Several armored vehicles, at least one with young Morsi opponents sitting on the roof, deployed on the 6th of October Bridge, aiming to chase away Morsi supporters. Military helicopters flew toward Tahrir.
An umbrella group of Morsi opponents called the public to join rallies immediately to counter a “malicious plot” by the Muslim Brotherhood, heightening an already raging confrontation in the streets.
The National Salvation Front and youth groups said in a statement late Friday that the Brotherhood has marched into the streets and targeted strategic areas in Cairo “to portray a false image” to the world that they have popular backing and to spark foreign intervention.
They called on the public “to defend popular legitimacy,” saying the army can “end this conspiracy” with the help of the people.
In cities across the country, clashes erupted as Morsi supporters marched on local government buildings, battling police or Morsi opponents.
“We are all now afraid for Egypt,” Amr Moussa, a former Arab League chief who was a major leader of the opposition to Morsi during his year in office, said on Al-Hayat TV. “Egypt can’t afford to enter into violence or civil war.”
But Islamists vowed to show by their numbers and the turmoil that the military had made a mistake in ousting Morsi on Wednesday night after millions of Egyptians poured into streets around the country for four days this week demanding the Islamist president go in the biggest rallies the country has seen.
Badie’s speech injected a new vehemence into Morsi’s supporters, and the eruption of clashes at multiple locations soon afterward suggested a coordinated counter-push against those behind his ouster.
“The military got itself in a trap by siding by one side. Now they see the masses in the streets and now they realized that there are two peoples,” Hamada Nassar, a figure from the hard-line former militant group, Gamaa Islamiya, told AP.
As clashes raged Friday night, the military’s spokesman warned against “any provocation or contact with groups of peaceful protests, and those who transgress that will be dealt with complete determination according to the law.”
The day’s turmoil began in the afternoon when army troops opened fire as hundreds of Morsi supporters marched on the Republican Guard building in Cairo, where Morsi was staying at the time of his ouster before being taken into military custody at an unknown location.
The crowd approached a barbed wire barrier where troops were standing guard around the building. When one person hung a sign of Morsi on the barrier, the troops tore it down and told the crowd to stay back. A protester put up a second sign, and the soldiers opened fire, according to an Associated Press photographer.
One protester was killed, with a gaping, bleeding wound in the back of his head, while others fell bloodied and wounded. Witnesses told to AP Television News at the scene that men in plainclothes fired the lethal shots.