By SARAH EL DEEB, Associated Press
CAIRO (AP) — They showed a military-style precision: Crowds of bearded Islamists proclaiming allegiance to Egypt's President Mohammed Morsi and chanting "God is great" as they descended on tents set up by anti-Morsi protesters outside the presidential palace, swinging clubs, firing rifles and calling for burning down the opposition. They set up a detention facility, interrogating and beating captured protesters.
The scene from bloody clashes outside the presidential palace a week ago hangs over Egypt's political crisis as a daunting sign of how much more violent the confrontation could become between Morsi's Islamist supporters and the opposition that has launched a giant wave of protests against him.
Opponents of Morsi accuse his Muslim Brotherhood supporters of unleashing highly trained cadres — fired up with religious slogans — to crush their political rivals. They fear last week's violence was a signal that the Brotherhood will use force to push its agenda and defend its political gains in the face of a persistent protest movement demanding that Morsi withdraw a draft constitution largely written by his Islamist allies.
Ahead of new mass rallies by both sides Tuesday, masked gunmen attacked anti-Morsi protesters in Cairo's central Tahrir Square before dawn, firing birdshot at them and wounding nine. It was unclear who was behind the attack, said security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press.
Officials from the Brotherhood and its political party deny using violence to quell critics. Regarding the clashes last Wednesday, the worst violence yet in the crisis, they say Morsi supporters were defending the palace and accuse the protesters of starting the battles. They claim their side suffered more deaths and injuries during the clashes, which left at least eight people dead. More broadly, the Brotherhood accuses former regime supporters of paying thugs in an organized campaign to topple Islamists from power, pointing to a series of attacks on Brotherhood offices the past weeks.
"The group and the party don't use violence and have no inclination to the use of violence," said Mourad Aly, a Brotherhood party spokesman. He added, "We will never allow an attack or breach on the palace."
However, when last week's violence began, the only protesters outside the palace were several dozen people conducting a sit-in in the tents, and the allegiances of those killed remain controversial. Opponents and rights lawyers charge that the Brotherhood has tried to persuade some families to declare their deceased sons as Brotherhood.
Testimonies and videos that have emerged from the nearly 15 hours of street clashes show an organized group of disciplined Islamists, working in units and carrying out military-type exercises as they broke up the tent sit-in at the palace.
In one video posted online, thousands of Islamists lined up on a main boulevard near the palace, chanting "Power, Resolve, Faith, Morsi's men are everywhere," and chanting calls of burning down the opposition — then they assaulted the camp.
The exact circumstances of the online videos could not be independently confirmed, but their contents were consistent with Associated Press reporting.
Opponents of the Brotherhood frequently accuse the group of running a "militia." The group is known for its tight discipline, and it acknowledges that many of its young members undergo organized martial arts training — but it vehemently denies forming any militias.
Tharwat el-Kherbawy, a former Brotherhood member and now an opponent of the group, said the Brotherhood's central organizational doctrine — calling on members to "hear and obey" their leaders — gives it a military-like structure.
When the Brotherhood met a stronger than expected protest movement, "they had no hesitation in hastening to implement their ideas and resorting to violence," he said. "If their empowerment project is facing resistance, this resistance must be quelled."
The Dec. 5 showdown was the fiercest display of the Brotherhood's strength, but similar, smaller attacks on opponents by Brotherhood members took place at least three times earlier this year when secular and liberal groups criticized the Brotherhood's grip on power.
During last Wednesday's fighting, nearly 140 anti-Morsi protesters were tortured and interrogated at a makeshift detention center set up by the Brotherhood along the walls of the presidential palace, according to witnesses. The detained protesters were filmed making forced confessions that they had received foreign funds, according to some who were held and an Egyptian journalist who snuck into the site.