CAIRO — The Egyptian government acknowledged that its security forces killed 36 Islamists in its custody on Sunday, as the country’s military leaders and Islamists vowed to keep up their fight over Egypt’s future.
The deaths were the fourth mass killing of civilians since the military took control July 3 but the first time so many had died in government custody.
The news of the deaths came on a day in which there appeared to be a pause in the street battles that have claimed more than 900 lives since Wednesday, most of them Islamists and their supporters gunned down by security forces. The Islamists took measures Sunday to avoid confrontations, including canceling several protests against the ouster of a democratically elected Islamist-led government.
While confirming the killings of the detainees Sunday, the Ministry of the Interior said the deaths came during an escape attempt by Islamist prisoners. But officials of the main Islamist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, described the deaths as “assassinations,” and said the victims, which it said numbered 52, had been shot and tear-gassed through the windows of the locked prison van.
The killings were the latest indication that Egypt is moving into uncharted territory, with neither side willing to back down, Egyptians increasingly split about the way forward, and no obvious political solution in sight. The government is considering banning the Brotherhood, which might force the group underground but would not unravel it from the fabric of society it has been part of for eight decades.
Foreign governments also remain divided about the increasingly bloody showdown. US officials said they had taken preliminary steps to withhold financial aid to the Egyptian government, though not crucial military aid, and the European Union announced Sunday that it would “urgently review” its relations with the country, saying the interim government bore the responsibility for bringing violence to an end.
But the Egyptian military retains the support of the oil-rich states of the Persian Gulf, especially Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which have pledged billions in aid to the new government.
Although it appeared that security forces were more restrained on Sunday — with no immediate reports of killings in the streets — Major General Abdel-Fatah el-Sissi, the country’s military leader, spoke out on national television in defiant and uncompromising tones, condemning the Islamists again as “terrorists,” but promising to restore democracy to the country.
The Muslim Brotherhood had announced that it would stage nine protest marches in and around Cairo on Sunday as part of its “week of departure” campaign that began Friday to protest the military’s deposing of the country’s first democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi.
All but three of the marches were cancelled, and even those that continued were re-routed to avoid snipers who were waiting ahead, along with bands of pro-government thugs, the police, and the military.
The authorities, too, appeared to avoid aggressively enforcing martial law provisions, including a 7 p.m. curfew, that would have led to clashes with the protesters.
Protesters who gathered at the al-Rayyan mosque in the Maadi area of Cairo had aimed to march from there to the Constitutional Court, Egypt’s supreme court, whose chief justice, Adly Mansour, has been appointed interim president by the country’s military rulers.
Marching in the 100 degree heat, protesters were fatalistic about the threats they faced. Mohammad Abdel Tawab, who said his brother was killed Friday at Ramses Square, had heard the reports of pro-government snipers ahead.
“They will kill us, I know, everybody knows, but it doesn’t matter,” he said.
A woman, Samira, dressed in an abaya with only her eyes visible, marched holding her 1-year-old daughter Sama. “Whatever will happen to us, will happen,” she said. “God has written it already.”
Protest leaders, however, were more cautious, and repeatedly rerouted the march at the last moment to avoid confrontations, turning down narrow lanes where residents in upper stories sprayed them with water. It was not always clear whether the gesture was in support or in contempt.
In the last mile, the leader of the march, Mohammad Salwan, ordered everyone to get on the metro train for the final approach to the court, and then protesters dissipated instead of trying to breach barricades set up by pro-military factions.
“We know there are snipers along the route, and we want to avoid losing any more lives,” he said.
Similarly, a protest in Giza was called off after it was threatened by military supporters, and the only other one to be held was in a strongly pro-Brotherhood area, Helwan, in south Cairo. Another march, to the presidential palace in Heliopolis, was also canceled.
“The leadership decided things were getting out of control and they couldn’t afford more casualties,” said a Brotherhood member who writes for one of the group’s publications and who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak for the organization.
Even on Saturday, which had seemed quiet, 79 people were killed across Egypt, according to the government press agency, MENA.
Brotherhood leaders in particular have paid a heavy price, with the children of many top officials among the dead. They include Asmaa el-Beltagy, the son of a senior Brotherhood leader, Mohammed el-Beltagy, killed at Rabaa square Wednesday; Ammar Badie, 38, son of Brotherhood spiritual leader Mohammed Badie, shot during clashes Friday in Ramses Square; Habiba Abd el-Aziz, 26, the daughter of Ahmed Abd el-Aziz, the media consultant to Morsi, killed at Rabaa from a bullet wound to the head on Wednesday; and the grandson of the movement’s founder.
There were scant details on the prison killings Sunday, and no explanation for why the victims were inside a prison van and had reportedly taken a prison official hostage.
The Ministry of the Interior issued conflicting accounts of what had happened, at one point saying prisoners had taken a guard hostage, then saying militants attacked the prison van to free the prisoners, who were killed in the process, and then saying that tear gas used to suppress the escape caused the prisoners to suffocate to death. Later, the ministry claimed the deaths happened in the prison, not in the van.
The violence came a day after a speech in support of the Muslim Brotherhood by Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who likened Egypt’s military leader, Sissi, to Syrian leader Bashar Assad.
“There are currently two paths in Egypt: those who follow the Pharaoh, and those who follow Moses,” he said.