CAIRO — Egypt remained on edge Sunday after security forces stormed a Cairo mosque a day earlier and the ousted president’s Muslim Brotherhood remained poised to hold further street protests despite a possible outlawing of the group.
At one point, troops exchanged gunfire with men shooting from a minaret of the al-Fath mosque on Ramses Square, where hundreds of supporters of Mohammed Morsi had fled overnight after violent clashes killed 173 people.
The evacuation was prompted by fears that the Brotherhood again planned to set up a sit-in, security officials said, similar to those that were broken up Wednesday in assaults that killed hundreds of people.
Simultaneously, police arrested the brother of al-Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahri, who officials said planned to bring in armed groups to provide support to those holed up inside the mosque.
Mohammed al-Zawahri, a Morsi ally, is the leader of the ultraconservative Jihadi Salafi group which espouses al-Qaida’s hard-line ideology. He was detained at a checkpoint in Giza, the city across the Nile from Cairo, the official said.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity as he wasn’t authorized to brief journalists about the arrest.
The Egyptian government meanwhile announced it had begun deliberations on whether to ban the Brotherhood, a long-outlawed organization that swept to power in the country’s first democratic elections a year ago.
Such a ban — which authorities say is rooted in the group’s use of violence — would be a repeat to the decades-long power struggle between the state and the Brotherhood.
For more than a month since the July 3 military overthrow of Morsi, Brotherhood members and supporters have attacked and torched scores of police stations and churches in retaliation. Shops and houses of Christians have also been targeted.
Such attacks spurred widespread public anger against the Brotherhood, giving the military-backed government popular backing to step up its campaign against the Islamist group. It reminded people of a decade-long Islamist insurgency against Mubarak’s rule in the 1990s which only strengthened security agencies and ended with thousands of Islamic fundamentalists in prisons.
The unrest in Egypt has raised international concerns over the country’s stability and prompted U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon to condemn in a statement on Saturday both “violent protests” in reference to Brotherhood’s rallies and the authorities’ “excessive use of force.”
Former President Jimmy Carter expressed deep concern over the violence, saying it is “rapidly eroding the chances for dialogue and a road to reconciliation.” Carter added that he is “especially concerned that Egyptians are arming themselves and engaging in inter-communal violence.”
On Wednesday, riot police, military helicopters, snipers and bulldozers broke up two sit-in protests in Cairo by Morsi’s supporters, leaving more than 600 people dead and thousands injured. That sparked days of violence that killed 173 people and injured 1,330 people on Friday alone, when the Brotherhood called for protests during a “Day of Rage,” Cabinet spokesman Sherif Shawki said.
Among those who died Friday was Ammar Badie, a son of the Brotherhood’s spiritual leader Mohammed Badie, the group’s political arm said in a statement.
Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi, who leads the military-backed government, later told journalists that authorities had no choice but to use force in the wake of recent violence.
The Muslim Brotherhood, founded in 1928, came to power a year ago when Morsi was elected in the country’s first free presidential elections. The election came after the overthrow of autocrat Hosni Mubarak in a popular uprising in 2011.
The fundamentalist group has been banned for most of its 85-year history and repeatedly subjected to crackdowns under Mubarak’s rule. While sometimes tolerated with its leaders allowed to be part of the political process, members regularly faced long bouts of imprisonment and arbitrary detentions.
Disbanding the group, experts say, would mean allowing security forces to have a zero-tolerance policy in dealing with its street protests, as well as going after its funding sources. That could be a serious blow to the Brotherhood, though it likely wouldn’t mean an end to a group that existed underground for decades
The possible banning comes amid calls by pro-military political forces to brand the Brotherhood a “terrorist organization.”
“We are calling for declaring the Brotherhood as a terrorist group,” said Mohammed Abdel-Aziz, one of the leaders of the Tamarod youth movement that had organized mass rallies calling for Morsi’s ouster.
The military-backed government has declared a state of emergency and imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew since Wednesday, empowering army troops to act as a law enforcement force. Top Brotherhood leaders, including Morsi, remain held on a variety of charges, including inciting violence.
Since Morsi was deposed in the popularly backed military coup, the Brotherhood has stepped up its confrontation with the new leadership, rallying thousands of supporters in sit-ins and vowing not to leave until Morsi is reinstated.
After security forces broke up the protest camps, Islamist supporters stormed and torched churches and police stations. In response, the interim government authorized Egypt’s security forces to use deadly force against those attacking vital government institutions.
On Saturday, Egypt’s Interior Ministry said in a statement that a total of 1,004 Brotherhood members had been detained in raids across the country and that weapons, bombs and ammunition were confiscated from the detainees.
Several foreigners were also rounded up including Sudanese, Pakistanis and Syrians, the Interior Ministry said.
Morsi himself has been held incommunicado since his ouster. Top Brotherhood leaders including General Guide Deputy Khairat el-Shater were detained last month.