Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Thousands protest Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood

Allegations of beatings, power-grabbing

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CAIRO, Egypt -- Thousands of Egyptian protesters clashed with riot police and backers of the president's Muslim Brotherhood on Friday, ransacking several offices nationwide as anger over allegations of beatings and power-grabbing boiled over into the largest and most violent demonstrations yet on the doorstep of the powerful group.

As night fell, streets surrounding the Brotherhood headquarters were littered with shattered glass, charred vehicles, stones and gloves stained with blood. The number of injured reached nearly 100 from the two sides.

"We came to the stronghold of the Brotherhood. No more protests in front of the presidential palace, because those ruling Egypt are here," said 50-year-old Hamat Awat, a female protester while running away from volleys of tear gas fired by black-clad riot police guarding the headquarters.

Anger erupted a week ago when Brotherhood members beat journalists and liberal and secular activists during a protest outside the group's Cairo headquarters. Journalists were there to cover a meeting. Protesters demand an apology, but the fundamentalist movement said its guards were provoked and acted in self-defence.

After smaller demonstrations since last weekend outside the headquarters, thousands of activists thronged to the building and battled Brotherhood supporters with birdshot, rocks, knives, sticks and their fists Friday. Gunshots were heard ringing in the neighbourhood.

Three Brotherhood offices were ransacked by mobs in another Cairo neighbourhood, in the second-largest city of Alexandria and in the Nile Delta city of Mahalla.

Egypt has faced near-constant turmoil in the more than two years since longtime authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak was overthrown in a revolt. His successor, Mohammed Morsi, the country's first democratically elected leader, has faced increasing frustration over what many see as attempts by his group to monopolize power and the slow pace of his efforts to reform the state and fulfil the revolution's promises of better living standards and justice.

Thousands of policemen, meanwhile, have gone on strike, refusing to confront protesters, and in some provinces, Egyptians have taken to vigilante violence and killings to fight crime. The unrest has badly hurt the economy, with foreign investors and tourists largely staying away and a diesel crisis that has crippled life for millions.

Morsi's opponents -- led by many of the activists who were at the forefront of the mass protests leading to Mubarak's ouster -- charge he has done little to improve the country in the nine months since he took office. They accuse the Brotherhood, which rose to power after years of repression under the former secular regime, of seeking to monopolize power, a charge the group denies.

The anti-Brotherhood protesters are demanding the resignation of the attorney general and the interior minister, both presidential appointees. They also accuse the interior minister of authorizing security forces to use excessive force against protesters. More than 70 people have been killed in clashes with police since Mohammed Ibrahim was appointed in January.

Muslim Brotherhood spokesman Yasser Mehres blamed opposition parties for calling Friday's protest outside the group's headquarters. He said it gave way for "thugs" to infiltrate and attack Brotherhood offices.

"Right now, Brotherhood buses are being burnt and there are serious injuries with people in critical condition," he said. "It is not acceptable that Egyptians watch TV and see this farce taking place as Egyptians fight one another."

Young men threw stones and wielded tree branches and broken bottles as they chanted against Morsi near the Brotherhood's headquarters in Cairo. One sign held aloft by a protester outside the headquarters read: "Who is ruling Egypt?"

Riot police stood guard around the building but initially didn't interfere to break up the two sides fighting a few blocks away. Later in the evening, the police fired volleys of tear gas at protesters who tried to approach the headquarters.

Black plumes of smoke billowed after protesters torched buses that had ferried Brotherhood members to the site, and security officials said at least 100 people were injured.

The Brotherhood spokesman said the group's headquarters was the wrong place to demand change.

"The protesters' demands should be delivered to the government and president, not the Brotherhood office, because even though the president came from the group, he makes decisions that are separate from the group," Mehres told The Associated Press.

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 23, 2013 A25

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