CAIRO – With water cannons and tear gas, Egyptian riot police battled on Friday with hundreds of rock-throwing supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi in clashes across the country that left five dead, according to officials.
Authorities, meanwhile, unveiled a new tactic to contain protests called by Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood group and its allies, calling on large families to post armed men near the likely sites of demonstrations.
Friday is the day of the week in Egypt in which protests are typically at their largest. The day’s demonstrations follow an announcement by the authorities that they will use Brotherhood’s new designation as a terrorist organization to levy harsh prison sentence on protesters, and poses the first test of whether that will deter them.
In at least seven southern provinces, security and local officials said that the authorities turned to armed civilians from anti-Islamist and pro-government families to provide support to security forces, help guard police stations and churches and confront pro-Morsi rallies.
One high-ranking Interior Ministry official said that this is part of a bigger deal between the security apparatus and the big clans in the south, the most conservative part of Egypt, which has a strong tradition both of inter-family feuding and of Islamist militancy.
Families will hand over heavy weapons to the government but will be allowed to carry lighter ones when facing off with Islamists, and in return authorities will support candidates from those families in upcoming parliamentary elections.
The tactic is not new in Egypt. In the 1990s, during the Islamic insurgency against ousted President Hosni Mubarak, the government formed so-called “popular committees” in which relatives of ruling party members, parliamentarians and other prominent government allies helped expel militants from towns and cities.
In at least two incidents on Friday in the southern provinces of Assiut and Qena, witnesses said, two small rallies quickly dispersed after pro-government civilians riding in pickup trucks fired their machine guns into the air, driving protesters away.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press.
In Cairo, riot police chased rock-throwing and Molotov-hurling student protesters chanting against the military and the police at the Islamic Al-Azhar University. In a second district of Alf Maskan, a cameraman saw Islamist protesters hurling Molotov cocktails and fireworks at security forces while civilians, on the police side, hurled stones. The street was littered with rocks, shattered glass and covered with black soot.
In a statement, the Interior Ministry said a total of three people were killed. Three police vehicles were set on fire and 265 protesters, including women, were arrested, it said. Two security officials in the southern city of Minya and Aswan said that two pro-Morsi supporters were killed in the clashes, bringing the total number of deaths to five.
Armored vehicles had earlier been used to close off main squares and city centers in Cairo and other major cities in preparation for expected rallies protesting the labeling of the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. The announcement was meant to further cripple the group ahead of a key vote on a draft constitution on Jan. 14 and Jan. 15 seen by the interim government as a milestone in the transition plan.
After the declaration, a security spokesman said any participants in Brotherhood rallies will be sentenced to five years in prison, and group leaders could be sentenced to death according to anti-terrorism laws.
Since Morsi was ousted in a military coup on July 3 after millions demonstrated to demand his removal, the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies have held constant protests but under a heavy-handed crackdown on the group, numbers sharply decreased.
The terrorist label came after a suicide bombing Tuesday in a Nile Delta city that killed 16 and wounded 100, mostly policemen. A second blast occurred Thursday in Cairo, hitting a bus and injuring passengers but leaving no major casualties.
The government accused the Brotherhood of being behind the bombing, a claim the group denies. An al-Qaida-inspired group, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, or the Champions of Jerusalem, claimed responsibility for Tuesday’s suicide attack and vowed more.
The government has provided no strong evidence that links the Brotherhood to militant groups. But during Morsi’s year in power, he allied with radical groups and sent envoys to militant leaders for a truce in the volatile Sinai region in return for halting a military offensive.
After Morsi’s ouster, the military launched a major offensive in the Sinai Peninsula against suspected militants, sweeping through hideouts in villages located near the borders with the Gaza Strip and Israel.