CAIRO (Reuters) - Egyptian police captured a senior Muslim Brotherhood official on Thursday and threatened to use live rounds at planned anti-government rallies, pressing ahead with a campaign that has thrown Egypt’s oldest Islamist organisation into disarray.
Mohamed Beltagi, a leader of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, had urged Egyptians to join rallies against the military on Friday, in a recorded statement aired by the Qatari-owned Al Jazeera television news network this week.
He was arrested along with two fellow Brotherhood officials and transferred to Tora jail on the outskirts of Cairo, where the upper echelon of the organisation is already incarcerated.
Egypt is enduring the worst internal strife in its modern history, triggered by the army’s July 3 overthrow of President Mohamed Mursi, a Brotherhood member.
More than 950 people, including 100 soldiers and police, have been killed since security forces broke up two pro-Mursi sit-ins on August 14. One human rights activist estimates that 2,000 people have been detained in the crackdown which appears to have sapped the momentum of anti-government protests.
The National Coalition to Support Legitimacy and Reject the Coup, which includes the Brotherhood and demands Mursi’s reinstatement, called for protests following noon prayers last Friday, but failed to draw large crowds.
This week, Beltagi and Essam El-Erian, one of the most senior Brotherhood officials to remain at large, sought to resuscitate protests against the military in recorded messages.
“I call on the Egyptian people to protest on Friday August 30 to bring down the bloody military coup,” Erian said.
In contrast to last Friday’s relatively low-key security arrangements, the interior ministry issued a statement on Thursday warning protesters that police would be armed with live bullets and ready to confront any attempts to undermine security or “assault government, police or religious facilities”.
State television channels have described the Brotherhood as a “terrorist” group and accused it of violence. The Brotherhood says it is still committed to peaceful resistance despite relentless pressure from security forces.
Dozens of Mursi supporters marching in central Cairo on Thursday were set upon by another group who favour the military. Witnesses said security forces resorted to firing in the air to separate the groups before a full-scale brawl broke out.
A nightly curfew has brought an eerie calm to the capital’s streets, where people usually sit in cafes until the early hours.
The curfew is hurting business but, exhausted by two-and-a-half years of turmoil, many Egyptians are yearning for a return to normalcy, even if it means accepting the military’s influence on politics.
Detained with Beltagi on Thursday were Khaled al-Azhari, a government minister during Mursi’s tenure, and Jamal al-Ishri, another official of the Islamist organisation.
The Brotherhood’s general guide, Mohamed Badie, and his deputies Khairat al-Shater and Rashad Bayoumy have already been put on trial on charges including incitement to killing. Their lawyers say the trials are politically motivated.
The authorities had ordered Beltagi’s arrest on July 10 on similar charges. Beltagi was a prominent speaker at a pro-Mursi protest camp at the Rabaa Adawiya mosque that was smashed by the security forces on August 14.
Additional reporting by Maggie Fick, Omar Fahmy and Kevin Liffey in Cairo; Editing by Michael Georgy