CAIRO — Egyptian prosecutors accused ousted President Mohammed Morsi today of conspiring with the Palestinian militant group Hamas and murder in his 2011 escape from prison that left 14 guards dead. The development fueled the likelihood of clashes as tens of thousands of supporters and opponents of the Islamist leader massed for rival rallies.
The surprise announcement about Morsi comes as Egypt’s divisions deepen. Military chief Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi has urged the public to turn out in droves today to support the army while state media is whipping up sentiment against the Islamists.
El-Sissi’s portrait pervaded the crowds of tens of thousands in Cairo’s central Tahrir Square: the smiling general in sunglasses on posters proclaiming “the love of the people,” a combination photo of the general and a lion on lanyards hanging from people’s necks, a picture of his face photoshopped into a 1-pound note of currency.
“The people, the source of all power, mandate the army and police to purge terrorism,” read a giant banner stretched across one entrance to Tahrir. Three tanks guarded another street leading into the square, and helicopters swooped overhead.
Morsi’s Islamist backers, in turn, were packing their own rallies in Cairo and elsewhere today in what they called the day “to bring down the coup,” referring to el-Sissi’s July 3 deposing of Morsi, Egypt’s first freely elected president. They accuse the general of pushing the country toward greater conflict with his call for a pro-military show of strength by the public today.
The prosecutors’ announcement was the first word on Morsi’s legal status since he was removed. For the past three weeks, he has been detained incommunicado by the military in an unknown location.
The start of legal proceedings could halt repeated calls by Western governments to free him or file charges. The announcement is the first step toward charges, meaning that prosecutors have formally begun criminal investigations against Morsi on the accusations.
A spokesman for Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood rejected the accusations, saying they showed “the complete bankruptcy of the leaders of the bloody coup.”
Egyptians “reject the return of the dictatorial police state and all the repression, tyranny and theft it entails,” Ahmed Aref said in a statement.
The Brotherhood and its allies have been holding sit-ins and protests demanding he be reinstated, and the past three weeks have seen repeated deadly clashes between Morsi supporters and opponents or security forces.
El-Sissi called for rallies today, saying he wanted a massive public “mandate” for the military to take action against “violence and terrorism.” The unusual call raised a widespread belief he intends to take action against the pro-Morsi protests.
Security was heavy after el-Sissi vowed to protect the rallies from attacks by rivals. Tanks guarded one entrance to Tahrir and police were stationed at other parts. “The people give their mandate,” read signs touted by many in the crowd.
“The army are here to protect the people, they don’t lie,” said Ezzat Fahmi, a 38-year-old in the crowd. He said el-Sissi had to call Friday’s rallies “so the entire world can see that the Egyptian people don’t want the Brotherhood anymore.”
It remains unclear what steps the military is planning after today’s show of public strength. The most explosive step would be if it were to try to break up sit-ins by Islamists who have been camped out at locations in Cairo and other cities for weeks. The military also could move to arrest more than a dozen Brotherhood figures who have arrest warrants against them.
Nearly 200 people have been killed since Morsi’s fall, whether in clashes involving Morsi supporters and opponents or in Sinai violence. In the clashes, each side blames the other for sparking clashes, and members of both camps have been seen with weapons.
The prosecutors’ announcement on Morsi could signal a greater move to go after the Brotherhood in courts. Besides Morsi, five other senior figures from the group have been detained.
The MENA news agency said Morsi has now been formally detained for 15 days pending the completion of the investigation into the accusations. It did not say, however, whether he would now be moved now to a regular detention facility where he could receive family visits. His detention can be extended as the inquiry continues.