CAIRO — Egypt erupted into violent chaos Friday, raising doubts about the new authorities’ capacity to maintain order, as Islamists and other opponents of last month’s military takeover fought security forces and their civilian allies in street battles across the capital, Cairo, and in other cities.
The country seemed to descend into anarchy. Protesters caught in a crossfire jumped or fell from an overpass in a panicked effort to escape. A gunfight erupted on the doorstep of a Four Seasons hotel. Men wielding guns and machetes — some backing the Islamists, others police supporters in civilian clothes, others simply criminals — roamed the streets of the capital and other cities, and it was often impossible to tell friend from foe.
Across the country, at least 72 civilians were killed, along with 10 police officers, security officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity. Health Ministry officials put the civilian death toll for Friday at 27.
In late afternoon, more than 30 uncounted corpses were seen at a field hospital in a mosque near the center of the fighting, in Cairo’s Ramses Square. Defying a 7 p.m. curfew, antagonists battled into the night, lit by an unchecked fire that consumed a nearby office building.
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Friday’s violence capped off a week that saw more than 700 people killed across the country.
The military-appointed government issued a statement declaring that the military, the police and the people were “standing together in the face of the treacherous terrorist scheme against Egypt of the Brotherhood organization.” But the extent of the mayhem cast doubt on its ability to deliver on its central promise of restoring order and security.
Two days ago, the police had routed thousands of protesters from encampments established to show support of the ousted president, Mohammed Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood, killing several hundred. The government suspended legal protections against arbitrary police action and authorized security forces to kill anyone who threatened a public facility.
The violence began soon after noon prayers Friday, as thousands of Islamists marched in a last defense against a return to the era of political exclusion, imprisonment and torture they endured under 60 years of military-backed dictatorship.
The Western powers increased their criticism of the Egyptian military Friday, but it appeared, once again, to have little effect. While the United States has held up delivery of F-16 fighter jets, and President Obama said Thursday that the United States was withdrawing from joint military exercises with Egypt, the national-security adviser, Susan Rice, has made clear that she wants to avoid a break in a four-decade relationship with the military leaders of a staunch U.S. ally.
There was no sign the chaos would end anytime soon. The Muslim Brotherhood, the main Islamist group behind Morsi, called for similar marches every day for the next week and vowed to hold daily, nonviolent marches to Ramses Square for morning and evening prayers, declaring, in the words of Thomas Jefferson, that the bloodshed “irrigates the tree of liberty in Egypt.”
In the canal city of Suez, 14 people were killed in clashes between protesters and security forces. In Egypt’s second-largest city, Alexandria, 10 people were killed during clashes between the two rival camps. Security officials said violence was also fierce in the province of Fayoum, just west of Cairo, where seven people were killed during an attempt to storm the main security building there, a security official said. Two policemen died in the attack.
In the southern province of Minya, protesters attacked two Christian churches, security officials said. At churches across the country, residents formed human chains to try to protect them from further assaults, and a civilian was killed while trying to protect a church in Sohag, south of Cairo, authorities said.
Many Morsi supporters have criticized Egypt’s Christian minority for largely supporting the military’s decision to remove him from office, and dozens of churches have been attacked this week.
Mourad Ali, a spokesman for the Brotherhood, denounced the attacks on churches, saying they ran counter to Islamic principles and were an attempt to ignite sectarian divisions.
More than 800 people were arrested Friday, including local Brotherhood leaders in the provinces. The group’s top figures are facing charges of inciting violence, and some have been imprisoned for weeks. Morsi has been held at an undisclosed location and is facing a criminal investigation.
Morsi, a longtime Brotherhood leader, was ousted by the military after days of mass protests against him. He was accused by critics of failing to govern inclusively, and Cairo witnessed street clashes between his supporters and opponents on at least three occasions during his year in office, though the fighting was confined to key areas of the capital and not nearly as fierce or deadly as Friday’s violence.
Appalled by the scenes of carnage, the Western powers stepped up their criticism of Egypt’s new government.
France and Germany called for an emergency meeting of European foreign ministers to respond to Egypt’s violence, and Catherine Ashton, the top diplomat for the European Union, urged “appropriate measures” to penalize the new government.
Islamists in Turkey, Tunisia and Pakistan organized protests against the crackdown. But in Saudi Arabia, a fierce foe of the Brotherhood, King Abdullah delivered a televised statement pledging support for what he described as a Egypt’s fight against “terrorism,” and he scolded the West for its criticism.
Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.