Morsi charged with role in 2011 prison break
Protests escalate on both sides
CAIRO — As millions protested in dueling rallies across Egypt on Friday, the state news media reported that former president Mohamed Morsi was being investigated on accusations of conspiring with the Palestinian militant group Hamas in a prison break in 2011.
The accusations appeared to signal a shift away from any sort of accommodation with the Muslim Brotherhood, despite intense mediation efforts by Western and Arab diplomats since the military ousted Morsi and declared a new government. Morsi has been detained incommunicado for three weeks.
Instead, the military has moved toward formal criminal charges and a broader effort to crush the Brotherhood politically, analysts say, in moves that could portend further violence. Well over 100 people have been killed in street clashes over the past month. On July 8, police officers and soldiers opened fire on a group of Morsi supporters, killing 62.
Morsi and the Brotherhood are accused of working with Hamas to carry out an attack on a prison northwest of Cairo in 2011 that freed Morsi and about 30 other members of the group during the uprising against former president Hosni Mubarak.
The charges include conspiring to kidnap and kill police offices and soldiers at the prison. The attack also killed 14 inmates.
Prosecutors ordered that Morsi remain in detention for 15 days pending the completion of the investigation. Security officials late Friday said he was likely to be moved shortly to a civilian, high-security prison south of Cairo, the Associated Press reported.
Military intelligence agents are trying to determine whether Morsi gave sensitive state information to Islamist allies abroad or to the Brotherhood. The investigators also are looking into the secret finances of the Brotherhood and its funding channels abroad.
Millions of people turned out for pro-army demonstrations in several cities, with far smaller numbers appearing at pro-Morsi rallies, the AP said. The demonstrations were largely peaceful, but officials said five people were killed and two dozen injured in Alexandria.
Egypt’s defense minister, General Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, had called for mass demonstrations to take place Friday, saying that the public support would give him a “mandate” to fight terrorism — a phrase used here to refer to crackdowns on the Brotherhood.
The Brotherhood has remained defiant, demanding Morsi’s reinstatement as a precondition for any negotiations and mounting daily demonstrations. The group’s leaders quickly labeled Sisi’s plea for street demonstrations as a call to “civil war.” Its leaders insist that they are not seeking confrontation or violence.
“This is a preparation for eliminating the Brotherhood,” said Emad Shahin, a political science professor at American University in Cairo. “And of course it reduces the chance of Morsi coming back in any way.”
In Tahrir Square in Cairo, a vast throng gathered under a baking sun and stayed into the night to cheer Sisi. Early in the day, military helicopters hovered low over the crowd, earning delighted cheers. Protesters hugged the soldiers guarding entrances to the square, and posed for pictures with them.
The authorities had delayed the broadcast of TV serials during the day for the holy month of Ramadan to encourage people to join anti-Brotherhood demonstrations.
There had been widespread fears that the two protesting groups would collide violently, but as of late evening, the only serious clashes appeared to be in the port city of Alexandria, where the Egyptian media reported that one protester had been killed.
Morsi, whose face regularly appears on enormous banners in Islamist marches across the country, was arrested during the uprising against Mubarak’s regime and held for two days at the Waid Natroun prison, where the jail break occurred.
He is being investigated on charges of conspiring with Hamas in “hostile acts,” including the kidnapping and killing of police officers and soldiers at the prison, according to a report on the website of Egypt’s state newspaper, Al Ahram.
The accusations — which have been played up by his political opponents for some time — gained little traction until after Morsi was deposed, and have been dismissed by human rights groups as political.
The announcement of charges may also be aimed at relieving international pressure on the Egyptian authorities to release Morsi. On Wednesday, the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, joined the United States, the European Union, and other bodies in expressing concern about Morsi’s unexplained detention after his ouster as president.
In a statement, Salah al-Bardaweel, a spokesman for Hamas, denounced the charges and challenged Egyptian prosecutors to present evidence that the group had any involvement with the prison breaks.
Gehad el-Haddad, a spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood, said that the investigation amounted to a repudiation of the revolt that toppled Mubarak and “might increase the number of angry people on the ground.”
In Tahrir Square, a stronghold for Morsi’s opponents, many in the crowd seemed heartened by news of the detention and legal accusations.