Egypt unrest: 36 Islamist prisoners die in 'escape bid' as state sets about wiping out Muslim Brotherhood

The Muslim Brotherhood described the incident as "cold-blooded killing"

Cairo

At least 36 Islamist prisoners have been killed in Egypt after an apparent attempt to escape during their transfer to a prison outside Cairo.

The Muslim Brotherhood described the incident as "cold-blooded killing".

Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Francois Hollande have called for today's meeting of ambassadors in Brussels to be followed by an emergency session of EU foreign ministers.

After a week in which several hundred people have died during some of the worst mass slaughter Egypt has ever known in its modern history, the nation’s leaders may be wondering how much killing it will take to bring the Muslim Brotherhood to heel.

Hundreds of Islamists were detained during early morning raids yesterday, while Egypt’s army chief, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, made a statement in which he issued veiled threats against the group. Yet still the Brotherhood and its allies ordered mass rallies on the streets of the capital today.

It came as the country’s interim government – whose transitional “roadmap” has been virtually obscured by the torrents of blood spilled over the past week – moved to eradicate the Brotherhood once and for all as a political force.

The cabinet reportedly began deliberations on how to ban the group – a move that would hark back to the eras of previous Egyptian autocrats who tried to cow its leaders using intimidation, imprisonment and execution.

The Prime Minister, Hazem el-Beblawi, who suggested outlawing the 85-year-old Brotherhood, told reporters over the weekend: “There will be no reconciliation with those whose hands have been stained with blood and who turned weapons against the state and its institutions.

“It’s very clear right now that the current government wants to eradicate the Muslim Brotherhood,” said Khalil al-Anani, a Cairo-based political expert. “We’re back to the 1950s and 1960s period of banning them and arresting their leaders. But this is very dangerous and will have serious consequences.”

The sweeping arrests of Brotherhood members were carried out in provinces up and down the country. At least 300 officials and activists were detained, with authorities accusing many of inciting violence and involvement in a recent wave of anti-Christian violence.

Meanwhile General Sisi, who has become a hugely popular figure in Egypt since last month’s coup, said in his statement that the military “will not stand by silently watching the destruction of the country and the people or the torching of the nation and terrorising the citizens.”

Over the past six weeks, Egypt’s authorities have successfully been creating a climate of fear – spurred on by an Islamist movement, sometimes including armed individuals, which appears to be willing to confront state-sponsored violence at any cost.

Parts of Cairo, a capital renowned for its chaos of hustle and bustle, have become a ghost town by nightfall, patrolled by police squads and cordoned off after the 7pm curfew by groups of neighbourhood vigilantes.

Over the weekend Egyptian officials released a statement expressing their “severe bitterness” towards Western media coverage of the crisis.

During the gun battles which gripped Cairo’s Ramses Square over the weekend – when hundreds of Islamists were trapped inside the al-Fath Mosque – several foreign journalists were beaten or detained by scared and angry locals. Their fear of the flying bullets was perhaps only matched by a fear of the putative Brotherhood menace.

Many Egyptian liberals and leftists have never really got over their suspicion of political Islam. Their fears were fuelled by a doctrine and rhetoric which has often seemed anathema to democracy and secularism. But over the past week, many Islamists have encouraged hostility against them, with dozens of churches and Christian homes torched and looted across Egypt since Wednesday.

Despite General Sisi’s statement yesterday that “there is room for everyone in Egypt”, any kind of political solution now looks inconceivable.

Ahmed al-Anani, an official from the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, told The Independent that politicians needed to find a negotiated solution to the crisis. When asked what such a solution might entail, he offered a long sigh and then said: “Believe me, I don’t know.”

The Egyptian journalist Lina Attalah argued it was difficult to see a way forward while the Brotherhood was stuck on the sidelines.

She said: “I don’t see how those in power now, the liberal and civil forces, are going to be able to move on with the transition plan while not settling the situation with the Islamists.” The only way they could continue without the Brotherhood was via the return of the police state, she added.

Regional reaction

Saudi Arabia

King Abdullah supports the assault on the Muslim Brotherhood, saying it is a fight against “terrorism”.

 The country watched the rise of political Islam with concern and pledged $5bn in aid to Egypt (alongside donations from the UAE and Kuwait) . If the US withdraws the annual $1.3bn it sends to Egypt’s military, Saudi has said it will make up the shortfall.

Qatar

Despite being a major backer of the Arab Spring revolts, and providing billions to Mohamed Morsi’s government, Qatar must be careful not to isolate itself from other Gulf countries. It has urged Egyptian authorities to “refrain from the security option in dealing with peaceful protests”.

Israel

Having openly welcomed the ousting of Mr Morsi, who did not improve relations with the Jewish state, Israel has been quieter about its reaction to the violence over the past week. It has a great deal at stake – Israel needs a stable Egypt to preserve the country’s 1979 peace treaty and restore order in the Sinai Peninsula, where Islamic militants are seen as  an increasing threat to its borders.

Turkey

The pro-secular military has staged three coups (in 1960, 1980, and in 1997, when it forced out an Islamic-led government), leading Prime Minister Erdogan’s government to curb its powers. The President called the violence a “shame for Islam and the Arab world”.

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