Islamists clashed with Egyptian soldiers Monday morning amid an ongoing leadership vacuum in Cairo, as a top cleric warned of "civil war." The spiraling violence and instability appear to offer the United States little leverage to shape events in the Middle East’s most populous country.
Fifty-one people were killed and more than 400 injured, the Ministry of Health told NBC News, after troops fired on protesters massed outside the Republican Guard headquarters early Monday. The protesters have been demanding the release of Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood leader who Wednesday was ousted as Egypt’s president in a military coup, after millions of Egyptians had taken to the streets to denounce his rule.
There were conflicting reports about how Monday’s violence was set off. The Brotherhood’s political arm said in a statement that the protesters were fired on “as they prayed peacefully,” and some eye-witnesses gave similar accounts to reporters. The Brotherhood statement also contended that more than 1000 were injured Monday morning.
Others accounts have said Morsi’s supporters opened fire first.
In response to Monday's violence, Egypt’s top cleric, Sheik Ahmed el-Tayeb, said he would go into seclusion and warned ominously of “civil war.”
Meanwhile, talks to form a stable government—in which U.S. diplomats are said to be playing a role—continued to founder. On Saturday, Egyptian state media reported that Mohamed ElBaradei, a liberal diplomat, would become interim prime minster. But Islamic conservatives reportedly refused to back ElBaradei, who they see as too secular.
The fast-moving developments appear to have stripped the ability of the U.S. to exert significant influence on the process.
Supporters of Morsi said before the coup that it could not go forward without at least tacit U.S. approval. The Obama administration, wary of being seen by Egyptians as manipulating events, reiterated Saturday that it isn’t taking sides in the conflict.
But there’s little doubt that the administration has seemed ill-prepared to help smooth the transition to Egypt’s next government, and its efforts in recent days have appeared ineffectual. On Sunday, American diplomats tried to persuade the Brotherhood to accept Morsi’s removal, an Islamist briefed on the conversations told The New York Times. But the Brotherhood vowed the same day to continue the nationwide protests against the coup that removed Egypt’s first democratically elected leader from power.
In a further sign that the political process may be in danger of falling apart, the Islamist Al Nour party said it was backing out of negotiations to form an interim government in response to what it called the “massacre” at the Republican Guard headquarters Monday. Al Nour last week was front and center in supporting Morsi’s ouster, offering a crucial signal to Islamists that the move was not anti-Muslim.