CAIRO – Egyptian authorities escalated their battle against ousted President Mohammed Morsi and his supporters Friday, launching an investigation into espionage and murder allegations against him as millions took to the streets in rival demonstrations across the country.
The crowds were the largest in the 2 1/2 years of upheaval that began as part of the Arab Spring wave of unrest.
The allegations marked the state’s first legal steps against Morsi, who has been held incommunicado since he was deposed as president this month in a military coup. The steps were taken as the military supervised mass rallies in Cairo 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.
While the demonstrations were mostly peaceful, deadly clashes broke out in the coastal city of Alexandria.
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.
The charges also include murder and kidnapping in connection with 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 their 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 allegations 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 was Morsi’s culture minister until he and other Islamist and Brotherhood Cabinet members were deposed on the day of the coup.
Pro-Morsi demonstrators came under attack in the coastal city of Alexandria when plainclothes men broke through their protest lines, assaulting them with rocks and rubber bullets, witnesses said.
Amro Nasr, the head of the ambulance services in Alexandria, said five people were killed and 140 injured in clashes in the city on Friday. The Muslim Brotherhood said more than 300 people were injured.