CAIRO >> Security forces boosted positions near a protest camp by supporters of ousted leader Mohammed Morsi as authorities today plotted their next moves after violence claimed at least 36 lives across the country and deepened the battle lines in the divided nation.
In a further sign of the concern the unrest could spin out of control, Egypt’s interim president held talks with the army chief and interior minister — whose snub of Morsi’s authority earlier this week tipped the scales against Egypt’s first elected leader.
The Interior Ministry added that at least eight policemen have been killed since the eve of the anti-Morsi protests on June 30, marking his anniversary in office. No other details on the deaths were immediately given.
Officials have briefly detained top figures from Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood and have kept the toppled president from the public eye, under detention in an undisclosed location.
But Morsi’s supporters have vowed to take to the streets until the toppled Islamist leader is reinstated. His opponents, meanwhile, have called for more mass rallies to defend what they call the “gains of June 30,” a reference to the start of massive protests to call for the ouster of the president.
There were no reports of major clashes in Egypt after dawn Saturday, following a night of street battles that added to an overall death toll of at least 75 in the past week.
Later, in the northern Sinai peninsula, gunmen shot dead a Christian priest while he shopped for food in an outdoor market on Saturday.
It was not immediately clear if the shooting was linked to the political crisis, but there has been a backlash against Christians since just before and after Morsi’s ouster. Attacks have occurred on members of the minority by Islamists in at least three provinces south of Egypt. Christians account for about 10 percent of Egypt’s 90 people. Morsi’s Brotherhood and hard-line allies claim the Christians played a big part in inciting against the ousted leader.
In Egypt’s capital Cairo, only a fraction of the city’s normally heavy traffic was on the streets Saturday amid worries that violence could flare again. Security forces stepped up their presence near the largest concentration of Morsi supporters on the streets: A sit-in outside a mosque in Cairo’s eastern Nasr City district, a traditionally Muslim Brotherhood stronghold.
With both sides digging in, the country’s acting president, Adly Mansour, met with army chief and Defense Minister Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi as well as Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim, who is in charge of the police, at the Ittihadiya presidential palace.
It was the first time Mansour, a previously little-known senior judge, has worked out of the president’s main offices since he was sworn-in Thursday as the country’s interim leader, a day after the military shunted Morsi aside after four days of the street protests that brought millions out into the streets.
Mansour also met Saturday with leaders of Tamrod, or Rebel, the youth movement that organized the mass anti-Morsi demonstrations, according to the officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media.
Mansour was recently appointed by Morsi as chief justice of the Supreme Constitutional Court, and was only sworn in as the chief justice minutes before he took the oath of office as president.
He took the helm of a fiercely divided country.
Enraged by Morsi’s overthrow, tens of thousands of the ousted president’s supporters poured into the streets Friday, holding rallies that they have vowed to continue until the former leader is returned to office.
Late Friday, violence erupted in central Cairo as the rival camps clashed on a bridge over the Nile River. Gunfire crackled in the streets and flames leaped from a burning car. The chaotic scenes ended only after the army rushed in with armored vehicles to separate the warring groups.
The clashes had accelerated after the supreme leader of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, Mohammed Badie, defiantly proclaimed his followers would not give up street action until the toppled president’s return to office.
“God make Morsi victorious and bring him back to the palace,” Brotherhood chief Mohammed Badie proclaimed Friday before cheering supporters at a Cairo mosque in his first appearance since the overthrow. “We are his soldiers we defend him with our lives.”
Badie said it was a matter of honor for the military to abide by its pledge of loyalty to the president, in what appeared to be an attempt to pull it away from its leadership.
Hours later, his deputy, Khairat el-Shater, considered the most powerful figure in the organization, was arrested in a Cairo apartment along with his brother on allegations of inciting violence, Interior Ministry spokesman Hani Abdel-Latif told The Associated Press. Two senior leaders of the Brotherhood were released from detention on Friday pending the completion of an investigation into their alleged role in inciting violence.
Across the country, clashes erupted as Morsi supporters tried to storm local government buildings or military facilities, battling police or Morsi opponents. Mohammed Sultan, deputy head of the national ambulance service, said at least 36 people were killed in Friday’s clashes, the highest death toll in one day since the protests began last Sunday. Another 1,076 were injured.
In his first public appearance since he was sworn in, Mansour was photographed at the Muslim Friday prayers, which he performed at a mosque near his house in a suburb west of Cairo.
“I want everyone to pray for me. Your prayers are what I need from you,” he told worshippers who approached him to shake his hand and wish him well, according to the independent daily el-Tahrir.
The paper said the president spoke to its reporter in a brief interview after the prayer. The president’s office could not be immediately reached to confirm the comments.
“We all need national reconciliation and we will work to realize it,” the newspaper quoted him as saying. “Egypt is for everyone.”
On Saturday, a Cairo court adjourned to Aug. 17 the retrial of former President Hosni Mubarak over charges of corruption and involvement in the killing of protesters during the 2011 uprising that ousted him.
Mubarak and his two sons, Alaa and Gamal, who are on trial for corruption, appeared at the court session Saturday.