CAIRO — Heavy gunfire erupted amid a tense standoff in central Cairo on Saturday, as security forces and an angry mob surrounded a mosque where hundreds of anti- government protesters had taken refuge, a day after widespread violence left at least 230 people dead nationwide and deepened fears of a slide toward full-blown civil conflict.
In the early afternoon, before gunfire broke out, soldiers negotiated a safe exit for some of those trapped inside the al-Fateh mosque in Ramses Square, escorting them past a mob of civilians eager to attack them. By late afternoon, following what appeared to be a protracted exchange of gunfire, security forces said they were able to enter the mosque to clear it.
At the height of the standoff, footage broadcast on state television showed troops in armored vehicles and exchanging fire with gunmen in the minaret of the mosque where many of those wounded in the violence on Friday were being treated, along with people who had fled the gunfire the day before.
Footage aired later showed police officers moving into the mosque and around its main hall, aiming their weapons. It was unclear what had happened to the dozens of people remaining inside.
The previous day, armed vigilantes known as Popular Committees had joined police and army troops in seeking to quell demonstrations by the Muslim Brotherhood. Brotherhood members and other Egyptians who say they oppose the military’s July 3 coup were protesting a brutal crackdown Wednesday on the movement’s two sit-ins set up to call for the reinstatement of deposed president Mohamed Morsi.
Violence across the country Wednesday left more than 600 people dead.
Egypt’s government put Friday’s death toll at 173, in addition to 57 members of the police, and said it was considering measures to outlaw the Brotherhood. Government spokesman Sherif Shawky blamed the Brotherhood for the violence, calling the demonstrations “the furthest thing possible from peaceful.”
“Eighty percent of nationwide deaths were caused by the Brotherhood using weapons to attack citizens and police,” he added. “The police used the highest levels of self-restraint.”
The Brotherhood has, however, accused the security forces of opening fire on unarmed demonstrators, as Friday’s protests, billed by the group as a Day of Rage, turned into a frightening glimpse of what may lie ahead for the deeply polarized country.
The United States and European countries have grown increasingly critical of Egypt’s actions, threatening to cut aid and reevaluate their ties to the Arab world’s largest state. On Saturday, Qatar condemned what it called “the excessive use of force” in the suppression of the protests, and urged Egyptian authorities to embark on dialogue.
“One of the main concerns of Qatar is that what is happening will divert democracy in Egypt,” said Foreign Minister Khalid bin Mohammad al-Attiyah while on a visit to Germany.
The comments put Qatar, the Morsi government’s staunchest foreign backer, at odds with Saudi Arabia, which has expressed wholehearted support for the crackdown. Speaking alongside Attiyah, Germany’s foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, warned of a “a great danger that more blood will spill . . . which indicates the danger of civil war.”
In a defiant news conference Saturday aimed at the international community, Egypt’s presidency defended the government’s actions, saying the state was engaged in a war against terrorism.
“This state and this people are now under attack,” said Mostafa Hegazy, an adviser to interim President Adly Mansour. He said the state and its security forces remained committed to defeating the “terrorists” and implementing the political road map laid out by Egypt’s military after it wrested control from Morsi last month.
“We will triumph simply for the reason that Egyptians have never been more united than they are today,” Hegazy said.
But those on Egypt’s streets Saturday were anything but united.
On Saturday morning, soldiers began to escort small groups of mostly women out of the al-Fateh mosque, where dozens of pro-Morsi protesters had barricaded themselves since Friday, after coming under attack by Egyptian security forces and anti-Morsi demonstrators.
But bystanders and people who had sought cover in the mosque said the escape was limited: Both those trying to flee and the troops escorting them had to navigate through an angry mob of civilians, many of whom said they wanted to “get to” the “terrorists” inside. Some carried sticks and knives.
“The Muslim Brotherhood is inside, and the people are outside, trying to get in,” said Adel, a paramedic who stood by with an ambulance team and gave only his first name to avoid harassment in the deeply tense atmosphere.