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Originally published Sunday, August 18, 2013 at 8:58 PM

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Egypt crisis turns Cairo into bloody battlefield

Egypt’s capital has been transformed from a bustling metropolis into a war zone, where more than 450 people have been killed as the military-backed interim government cracks down on supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi.

The Associated Press

36 die in custody

The Egyptian government acknowledged that its security forces killed 36 Islamists in its custody Sunday, saying at first the detainees had suffocated in a van from tear gas used to suppress an escape attempt but later insisting the Islamists died in a prison where they were taken. The Muslim Brotherhood, described the deaths as “assassinations,” and said the victims, which it said numbered 52, had been shot and tear-gassed through the windows of the locked prison van.

The New York Times

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CAIRO — Soldiers fired rifles in the air to keep a crowd from attacking supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi as they were being taken, one by one, out of the Al-Fath mosque where they had been besieged by security forces.

One man in the crowd, however, was able to reach over the soldiers and strike a detained protester with a stick.

The scene encapsulated the venomous mood in Cairo.

The streets of Egypt’s capital have become a deadly battleground between Morsi’s supporters and backers of the military that overthrew him. The crisis has severed friendships and, in some cases, turned neighbor against neighbor in the city of more than 18 million people.

More than 450 people have been killed in Cairo over the past four days, just over half the nationwide death toll for the week. Hundreds died when Egyptian security forces attacked two pro-Morsi sit-ins in Cairo on Wednesday.

How events play out in Cairo could largely determine whether Egypt can step back from the brink of chaos.

Over the weekend, street battles raged throughout the metropolis, once a stable corner of the Middle East. Armed civilians and security forces fought armed Morsi supporters and protesters. People openly fired automatic rifles and pistols at one another on overpasses and roads. Residents cowered in their homes, staying clear of windows and balconies.

Metro stations near protest sites are closed, and tanks enforce an army-imposed state of emergency that grants security forces broad powers to make arrests. Police stations and prisons have come under attack.

The city, normally bustling at all hours of the day and night, now slips into an eerie quiet with sporadic gunfire during an 11-hour curfew that starts at 7 p.m. The usually gridlocked streets are devoid of nighttime traffic.

Vigilantes and police dressed in civilian clothes staff makeshift roadblocks, frisking people without identifying themselves. Many brandish guns. The Interior Ministry warned civilians Sunday against breaking the curfew to man checkpoints.

Some grocery stores are running low, with bread cleared from shelves and residents stocking up on water and canned food. Banks opened for just three hours Sunday after being closed for four days.

Residents cannot see friends and family who live on opposite ends of the city because marches and protests have made road conditions unpredictable.

For taxi driver Ahmed Hosni, the blocked roads, violence and curfew have choked his income. He now spends his nights at a civilian checkpoint in the poor neighborhood of Basateen.

Hosni had voted for Morsi, but a year later joined the calls for his ouster. He also took part in mass protests last month in support of military action against “potential terrorism” by Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood. He said he was upset by the bloodshed that followed.

“We are living off what we have in the coming days,” said the 31-year-old, who provides for his mother and siblings. “God is with us all these coming days.”

Along major roads of the upscale neighborhood of Mohandiseen, apartment buildings are riddled with bullet holes, sidewalks are strewn with broken glass, public benches have been ripped out of the ground and several cars are smashed from fighting sparked by anger at police for clearing out the sit-ins. Stores were looted in the mayhem.

Dozens of policemen and tanks stand guard outside a main mosque where the Brotherhood’s supporters tried to create another encampment in Mohandiseen.

“No other way”

Mohammed Hamed Abdel-Khairy, who owns 20 stores that sell men’s suits, stood outside one of his shops as employees reinforced iron bars on the door and taped newspapers to the glass to keep thieves from peering in. He said three neighboring stores were robbed Wednesday.

“This will definitely affect my business. ... I don’t believe we will sell at all this month,” he said.

Abdel-Khairy said that he carries a licensed gun and that his employees have truncheons in the stores.

He defended the clearing of the two pro-Morsi sit-ins in which riot police killed more than 378 people.

“There was no other way,” he said. “How can we eat and live if protests are cutting off roads?”

He said mistakes were made by security forces when unarmed protesters were killed alongside some brandishing weapons, but he brushed it off as God’s will.

Brotherhood figure Salah Soltan told Al-Jazeera television news that he was stopped by armed men at a makeshift checkpoint who recognized him from TV appearances. The men, who he suspects were state security officials in civilian clothes, forced him and a sheik with him out of the car and took their phones and identification. He said the two then threatened with violence and forced to walk through narrow alleyways where residents angry with the Brotherhood tried to attack them. He said a local sheik held the residents off with his pleas.

“One group wanted to kill us, one group wanted to hand us over to the army,” he said.

An influential local resident intervened after neighbors pulled weapons on one another in arguments over how to deal with Soltan.

“Roaches”

A little more than two years ago, the scene in Cairo was starkly different. While there was some looting and a curfew that was less strictly enforced, Egypt was largely united in its bid to overthrow autocratic President Hosni Mubarak after 30 years. There was hope the revolution’s rallying cry of “bread, freedom and social justice” would yield results. Young activists painted sidewalks, planted flowers and cleaned up the streets.

Later, when Morsi was narrowly elected last year, the country’s first freely elected president stood in Tahrir Square and opened his suit jacket to show he didn’t need a bulletproof vest or the tight security of his deposed predecessor. But Morsi, a longtime Brotherhood leader, failed to include other factions in his decision-making and cast his critics as conspirators and Mubarak-era loyalists.

A little before curfew over the weekend, men gathered for daily rituals of tea, cigarettes and conversation. A group sitting at a corner coffee shop in the middle-class neighborhood of Shobra said the decision by the country’s army chief to oust Morsi saved the country from a Syria-like scenario. They criticized Western nations that called it a coup.

Ahmed Ragab, a government employee, said he supports the crackdown.

“If you have roaches in the kitchen that are eating away at your food. What do you do? You spray them,” he said.

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