CAIRO — Egyptian authorities escalated their battle against ousted President Mohammed Morsi and his supporters Friday, launching an investigation into espionage and murder accusations against him as millions took to the streets in rival demonstrations across the country that turned deadly.
The accusations marked the government’s first legal steps against Morsi, who has been held incommunicado since he was deposed this month by the military.
The steps were taken as the military supervised mass rallies in Cairo and other cities that it had called to back its “mandate” to confront violence and “terrorism,” words that Morsi’s supporters and rights groups interpreted as signaling an imminent crackdown.
Judicial authorities said prosecutors are investigating charges that Morsi conspired with the militant Palestinian Islamist organization Hamas in a 2011 prison break that freed him and about 30 other Muslim Brotherhood members amid the chaos of the Arab Spring uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak.
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The charges also include murder and kidnapping in the prison break northwest of Cairo, in which Hamas gunmen allegedly attacked the facility at the behest of Morsi and the Brotherhood, killing 14 guards.
The Brotherhood and Hamas separately denied the charges. The Brotherhood said local residents carried out the attack to free relatives.
The judicial announcement was the first official comment on Morsi’s legal status since he was ousted, and his supporters, who gathered by the hundreds of thousands in Cairo and Alexandria on Friday, quickly dismissed the accusations as political.
“The charges are nothing more than an attempt by the coup leaders to discourage the public from supporting the president’s legitimacy,” said Alaa Abdul-Aziz said, who served as Morsi’s culture minister.
The chief of Egypt’s armed forces, Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, had called on Egyptians to take to the streets Friday to grant the military the authority to combat terrorists, a label it has sought to attach to Morsi’s Islamist supporters in the Muslim Brotherhood.
State and independent media have echoed that portrayal with growing fervor in recent weeks, casting Morsi’s ouster as a “revolution” against extremists. Several TV stations and newspaper front pages urged Egyptians to turn out Friday to support the military.
In Cairo, an Egyptian doctor at a rally of Morsi supporters said the death toll from clashes with security forces was at least 38. Yehia Mikkia said Saturday that the total number killed in the clashes, which continued overnight, is likely higher. He said hundreds were wounded.
In Alexandria, at least seven people were reported killed and scores were injured, officials said.
Security forces have rounded up hundreds of Brotherhood members in the past three weeks, including a number of Morsi’s top aides who have also been held incommunicado.
Prosecutors have issued arrest warrants for the Muslim Brotherhood’s supreme guide and other top officials, who have sought refuge amid the group’s continuing protest outside the Rabaa al-Adawiyah Mosque in Cairo.
Morsi was formally ordered detained for 15 days. He has been held in an undisclosed location since his July 3 ouster and has been denied access to his lawyer.
Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.