Only a few thousand supporters of Egypt’s ousted president Mohamed Morsi turned out for protests Friday despite calls for massive marches, as Islamists reeled from a fierce police crackdown.
Friday was set to be a test of the remaining strength and commitment of the Islamists, who called for “Friday of martyrs” protests after the main weekly Muslim prayers.
But Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood managed to rally several thousand supporters, compared with the hundreds of thousands who flooded streets before security forces broke up two protest camps in Cairo earlier this month, killing hundreds.
Their numbers have been thinned by a fierce crackdown that has seen some 2,000 members and leaders arrested, including the movement’s supreme leader, Mohamed Badie, earlier this week.
Morsi supporters rallied peacefully in the Cairo middle class neighbourhood of Muhandesseen, in the upscale Maadi suburb and in Giza on the outskirts of the capital. In all there were about 7,000 demonstrators.
“The interior ministry are thugs,” the protesters chanted.
But rallies turned violent in the Nile Delta city of Tanta, where police fired tear gas after opponents and supporters of Morsi clashed. One person was killed and 15 Islamists arrested, security officials said.
The state-run MENA news agency reported pro-Morsi rallies elsewhere in the country, including second city Alexandria, as well as evening clashes in towns north and south of Cairo.
It said three people were wounded in Al-Dalanjat in the northern Buhayra province, when residents tried to prevent a pro-Morsi march, with both sides hurling stones at each other.
MENA also reported an “exchange of fire” in Dalja, in Minya province south of Cairo, when police clashed with Brotherhood supporters who tried to prevent them from entering the village.
The call for demonstrations came as former president Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted in the 2011 uprising, was released Thursday from jail to house arrest at a military hospital.
His release stirred little interest in Egypt, which has been rocked by political unrest since Morsi’s ouster in a July 3 military coup after massive protests against him.
Nearly 1,000 people were killed in a week of violence between Morsi loyalists and security forces after police dispersed their protest camps on August 14, sparking international concern and condemnation.
Amnesty International urged Egyptian police Friday to show restraint, saying they must “comply with international standards on the use of force and firearms.”
As there were no signs of the crackdown easing, many Brotherhood members have gone into hiding, a mid-level member told AFP, adding that they are also avoiding making contact by telephone for fear of being traced.
“We no longer receive directives and we don’t really know what we should do anymore. Most of our direct leaders are detained,” he said.
Brotherhood supreme guide Badie was arrested Tuesday, the first such detention since 1981 of a head of the movement.
The latest arrest was that of Ahmed Aref, one of the few remaining spokesmen for the group.
Morsi himself is being held at a secret location and faces charges related to his 2011 escape from prison and of inciting the death and torture of protesters.
Mubarak also faces charges of complicity in the deaths of protesters in 2011 and his trial resumes on Sunday, when Badie and several other Brotherhood leaders will also appear before a judge.
The United States, had little to say about long time ally Mubarak but it pressed again for Morsi’s release.
“Our position on Mr Morsi remains the same. We believe there should be a process for his release,” State Department Jen Psaki said.
Washington has cancelled joint military exercises with Egypt but stopped short of halting its $1.3 billion a year in mainly military aid.
The violence in Egypt has also targeted Christian institutions, which has been blamed on Islamists, with dozens of churches, schools, businesses and homes attacked.
The perpetrators are believed to be Islamists angry at the Coptic Church leadership’s endorsement of Morsi’s ouster.
On Thursday, Human Rights Watch condemned the government for failing to protect churches, and the Brotherhood for failing to halt incitement against Christians.
Violence has also continued to target police and soldiers, including three who were killed in a drive-by shooting near the Suez Canal town of Ismailia on Thursday.
The unrest has prompted international criticism of the authorities, with EU foreign ministers deciding on Wednesday to suspend the sale of arms and security equipment to Cairo.
But the ministers expressed concern over the economic situation and said “assistance in the socioeconomic sector and to civil society will continue”.