CAIRO — More violence is expected in Egypt after chaos swept through the country last week, leaving nearly 900 dead in four days of unrest and threatening to stall a political transition.
Egypt “is on a course for an incurable cycle of violence,” said Michael Wahid Hanna, a senior fellow at the New York-based Century Foundation.
“I don’t know if we’re very far off from seeing suicide bombings … and assassinations,” he said. “That’s where the country is headed.”
Over the weekend, the central al-Fateh mosque became the new battleground for unrest as protesters marched to Ramses Square in a self-declared “Friday of Anger.” After fighting broke out with security forces, leaving 173 dead on Friday, protesters used the mosque as a makeshift hospital and morgue before it was surrounded, then cleared, by security forces on Saturday.
Egyptian officials said Sunday that 79 were killed in Saturday’s clashes, bringing the 4-day death toll to 890 since Wednesday, when security forces plowed into two protest camps, killing at least 638.
That didn’t include 36 detainees killed Sunday night amid conflicting reports of an escape attempt in a prison truck convoy carrying 600 detainees en route to a northern Cairo jail. State news agency MENA reported the deaths occurred when security forces clashed with militants, while the Associated Press cited officials who blamed the deaths on tear gas fired into a truck after a police officer inside was captured by the prisoners.
Supporters of ousted president Mohammed Morsi canceled at least one of the protest marches they planned Sunday, citing security concerns. A Muslim Brotherhood-led coalition, furious over the ouster of Morsi on July 3, called off a rally at Roxy Square in Cairo “after reports of thugs on rooftops of surrounding buildings,” the Anti-Coup Movement said in a statement.
Meanwhile, angry assailants have attacked dozens of churches, Christian properties, police stations and government posts since Wednesday in retaliatory strikes against authorities, who cleared two major pro-Morsi protest camps, and their perceived backers — Christians.
“For the first time I fear walking in the streets,” said Cairo resident Dina Hosny, 24, who worries about additional attacks and now sees “violence as part of our everyday lives.”
Khalil Al-Anani, an expert on Egypt and Islamist movements, said it is unlikely the Muslim Brotherhood will turn to violence to achieve its political aims, but it doesn’t — and can’t — control all Islamists.
“If the state cannot include and engage many young Islamists … this will be a time bomb that can fire back on society and the state,” he said. “They will replace the ballot box by bullets.”
Some protesters vowed to fight if dissolved, democratically-chosen institutions including the disbanded parliament and 2012 constitution are not restored by authorities.
“If they destroy the way of democracy it will be a big problem for Israel and all the European and American people,” said Hamdy Al-Sagheer, an Arabic professor, at a Friday rally. “People will fight if we lose the way of democracy.”
Attacks on churches and government sites in recent days only strengthens the state’s resolve to deal with the Brotherhood and its Islamist allies as security concerns rather than political ones. The security situation could stall anticipated elections, analysts said.
“It’s a country no where near that point right now,” Hanna said, adding polling stations could be attacked and voters intimidated if elections took place under current circumstances.
The state boosted its narrative over the weekend that it is fighting “terrorism” as it arrested Islamists including the brother of Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahri, MENA reported. At Friday’s protest alone, Egyptian authorities arrested 1,004 Brotherhood “elements,” the interior ministry said.
Egypt is facing “war by the forces of extremism” and will confront it with “security measures within the framework of law,” Mostafa Hegazy, adviser to Egypt’s interim president, said in a press conference Saturday.
Amid the deadlock, Egyptians were trying to return to some semblance of normal Sunday: Banks, some shops and the stock exchange reopened on the first day of the workweek here as traffic was back on the streets.
But political problems remained dire.
The European Union said Sunday it will “urgently review” its relations with Egypt. The army and the interim government are responsible for ending the violence, Presidents of the European Commission and the European Council, Jose Manuel Barroso and Herman Van Rompuy, said Sunday in a statement.
“The violence and the killings of these last days cannot be justified nor condoned,” they said.
Still, many Egyptians support the military and Gen. Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, who overthrew Morsi.
“The Egyptian people and I are happy because the Brotherhood is gone,” said Waleed Mohammed, a security guard at a residential building. “The Brotherhood was in power for a year, and we were strangled. There was no democracy.”
In his first appearance since a deadly crackdown Wednesday, army chief Al-Sisi said Sunday that the military has no intention to seize power and called on Islamists to join the political process.
“We have given many chances … to end the crisis peacefully and call for the followers of the former regime to participate in rebuilding the democratic track and integrate in the political process and the future map instead of confrontations and destroying the Egyptian state,” he said.
Still, the government announced Saturday it is examining possibilities of disbanding the Brotherhood, which has won every election since 2011. But Islamists will be difficult to quiet even if they face political exclusion, Hanna said.
After the uprising against Hosni Mubarak in 2011, those who feel restrained are no longer willing to tolerate repression sitting down, “and I think that’s the big difference,” Hanna said.
Contributing: The Associated Press