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Since fierce clash, Egypt's crisis takes new turn

Thursday - 4/4/2013, 3:14am  ET

FILE - In this Friday, March 22, 2013 file photo, Egyptian protesters drag a wounded Muslim Brotherhood supporter during clashes between supporters and opponents of Egypt’s powerful Muslim Brotherhood near the Islamist group’s headquarters in Cairo, Egypt. Known as the "Battle of the Mountain," a ferocious recent fight between members of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood and their opponents in Cairo is looking like a dangerous turning point in the country’s political turmoil. Some protesters showed a new willingness to turn to violence against Islamists they accuse of dominating Egypt, while Islamists have heightened their calls for action against opponents they accuse of trying to topple the president. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra, File)

MAGGIE MICHAEL
Associated Press

CAIRO (AP) -- It has come to be known as the "Battle of the Mountain": a ferocious fight between members of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood and their opponents near the group's Cairo headquarters. In a country that has already seen crisis after crisis, it could mark a dangerous turning point in the political turmoil.

The aftermath of the fighting is raising worries that the confrontation between Islamists,, who dominate power in the country, and their opponents is moving out of anyone's control.

The riot on March 22 revealed a new readiness of some in the anti-Brotherhood opposition to turn to violence, insisting they have no choice but to fight back against a group they accuse of using violence against them for months. The fight featured an unusual vengefulness. Young protesters were seen at one point pelting a Brotherhood member with firebombs and setting him aflame. Others chased anyone with a conservative Muslim beard, while Islamists set up checkpoints searching for protesters. Each side dragged opponents into mosques and beat them.

Since the fight, Islamists enraged by what they saw as aggression against their headquarters have for the past week hiked up calls for wider action against opponents -- and the media in particular -- accusing them of trying to overthrow Islamist President Mohammed Morsi.

Those calls may explain moves by the country's top prosecutor the past week: the questioning of a popular television comedian, Bassem Youssef, whose Jon Stewart-style satires of Morsi drive Islamists into knots of anger, the summoning of several other media personalities and the issuing of arrest warrants against five opposition activists on accusations of fomenting violence.

Opposition activists warn the moves are the opening of a campaign of intimidation to silence Morsi's critics. The presidency says the prosecutor is just enforcing the law and that Morsi's office has nothing to do with the moves. Morsi's supporters say they are showing restraint against extreme provocation.

But rhetoric within the Brotherhood has increased in fervor. This week, Brotherhood head Mohammed Badie accused "some politicians" of "trying to generate something like a civil war in the community," in an apparent reference to opposition leaders.

"After all that blood and all the criminality in the street, there must be decisiveness," Gamal Heshmat, a lawmaker with the Brotherhood's political party, said of the recent arrest warrants. "This is a public demand. Now people must prove their innocence."

For opponents of Morsi, the battle was a sign that anger at the Brotherhood is spreading beyond its circles to the broader public, nine months into the administration of Brotherhood veteran Morsi.

Ziad el-Oleimi, a former lawmaker and revolutionary activist who lives in the neighborhood where the clashes took place, said local residents were behind the worst beatings of Brotherhood members, rather than the protesters who led the day's march on the group's headquarters.

Previous Brotherhood aggression "is starting to provoke people," said el-Oleimi, who was a leading figure in the 2011 protests that toppled Morsi's predecessor, Hosni Mubarak. "This time was a game changer. They had anticipated they would beat up the protesters, the opposition, and teach them a lesson. This is not what happened." Locals had already filed appeals to local authorities demanding that the Brotherhood office be removed from their neighborhood.

The fury growing for months was on display in the March 22 clashes in Moqattam, a district located on a rocky plateau overlooking Cairo, where the Brotherhood's headquarters is located.

Both sides came ready for a fight. Opponents had called for a march on the Brotherhood headquarters to "restore dignity" after an incident a week earlier, when Brotherhood members beat up activists who were spray-painting graffiti outside the building, as well as journalists filming the incident, slapping one woman to the ground.

The Brotherhood brought in several thousand supporters, vowing to defend the building, referring to it as "our home."

The mayhem erupted the minute the two sides faced off, and each accuses the other of throwing the first stone. The heaviest fighting was in a square several kilometers (miles) away from the Brotherhood headquarters, which was guarded by lines of police. Rains of stones and gunshots were exchanged, while "popular committees" formed by residents to protect their neighborhood joined in, swinging poles and machetes.

All day and into the night, the two sides battered each other with everything from knives and iron bars to homemade pistols, leaving 200 injured.

Bearded Brotherhood members dragged dozens of activists into the Bilal bin Ramah Mosque, where they beat them and flogged them with whips, several of those who were held told The Associated Press.

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