CAIRO – They showed a military-style precision: Crowds of bearded Islamists proclaiming allegiance to Egypt's President Mohammed Morsi and chanting "God is great" as they descended on tents set up by anti-Morsi protesters outside the presidential palace, swinging clubs and firing rifles. They set up a detention facility, interrogating and beating captured protesters.
The scene from bloody clashes outside the presidential palace a week ago hangs over Egypt's political crisis, as a daunting sign of how much more violent the confrontation between Morsi's Islamist supporters and the opposition that has launched a giant wave of protests against him can become.
Opponents of Morsi accuse his Muslim Brotherhood supporters of unleashing highly trained cadres — fired up with religious slogans — to crush their political rivals. They fear last week's violence was a signal that the Brotherhood will use force to push its agenda and defend its political gains in the face of a persistent protest movement demanding that Morsi withdraw a draft constitution largely written by his Islamist allies.
Ahead of a new mass rallies planned by both sides Tuesday, masked gunmen attacked anti-Morsi protesters in Cairo's central Tahrir Square before dawn, firing birdshot at them and wounding nine. It was unclear who was behind the attack, said security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press.
Officials from the Brotherhood and its political party deny using violence to quell critics, saying its supporters last week were defending the palace when police failed to do so — though by the time of the violence only around hundred protesters were outside the palace, conducting a sit-in.
They accuse former regime supporters and paid thugs of waging an organized campaign to topple Islamists from power and point to a series of attacks on Brotherhood offices the past weeks. Morsi supporters say they suffered more deaths and injuries during last Wednesday's bloody clashes that left at least eight people dead.
But testimonies and videos that have emerged from the nearly 15 hours of street clashes last week show an organized group of disciplined Islamists, working in units and carrying out military-type exercises as they broke up the tent sit-in at the palace.
Tharwat el-Kherbawy, a former Brotherhood member and now an opponent of the group, said the Brotherhood was surprised by the public opposition to Morsi's moves "and they had no hesitation in hastening to implement their ideas and resorting to violence."
He said the group's central organizational doctrine — which calls on members to "hear and obey" their leaders — gives its cadres a military-like structure. "If their empowerment project is facing resistance, this resistance must be quelled," he said.
Opponents of the Brotherhood frequently accuse the group of running a "militia," a claim the group vehemently denies. In either case, the group is known for its tight discipline, and it acknowledges that many of its young members undergo organized martial arts training.
During last Wednesday's fighting, nearly 140 anti-Morsi protesters were detained, tortured and interrogated at a makeshift center set up by the Brotherhood along the walls of the presidential palace, according to witnesses. The detained protesters were filmed making forced confessions that they had received foreign funds to join the protests, according to some who were held and an Egyptian journalist who snuck into the site.
One of the detention center victims, Yehia Negm, an Egyptian diplomat who has been an outspoken critic of Mubarak, told The Associated Press he was dragged on the ground from one of the frontlines to the center, where he was beaten. He is suffering from multiple injuries in the head, eye, nose, and ribs from beating and had remains of pellets in his forehead from gunfire during the clashes.
"When they found my ID that says a diplomat, they started accusing me of working with security agencies, of being a spy and of serving foreign countries," Negm said. "They rained beatings down on me. They started yelling at me, saying, 'You infidels, you want to burn the country down, you are not Muslims.'"
Around 20 Brotherhood members manned the center, made up of metal barricades erected against the palace wall, said Mohammed Elgarhy, a local journalist with the daily Al-Masry Al-Youm who snuck into the detention center alongside a pro-Brotherhood journalist and spent nearly four hours there. Troops from the Central Security Forces guarded the site, but did not interfere or try to stop the operation, he said.
Three Brotherhood members led the operation, while the rest carried out the beatings and interrogations, filming the confessions on mobile phones, he told AP.
"The Brotherhood were carrying out the job of the Interior Ministry," Elgarhy said. "They would arrest anyone they suspected and bring here...asking them questions such as who paid for you to come here. I never thought I would see this."
On Tuesday last week, hundreds of thousands of protesters marched on the palace in Cairo's upper middle class district of Heliopolis, demanding Morsi withdraw the draft constitution as well as sweeping powers that he had given himself in a series of decrees. After the giant rally, around 100 protesters set up a tent camp outside the palace. In response, the Brotherhood called a "general mobilization" of its members, and its spokesman said the group will protect the legitimacy of the president and state institutions.
The next day, thousands of Islamists lined up on a main boulevard near the palace, chanting "Power, Resolve, Faith, Morsi's men are everywhere," and threatening to douse the opposition tents with gasoline, according to video of the scene posted on YouTube.
The Islamists then stormed the camp, chanting "God is great" and "Islamic law is fundamental in Egypt," as they tore down tents and chase away the small group of protesters. They ransacked the tents' contents. Brotherhood supporters claimed they found evidence of drug use at the camp — though they showed any — and that burnt charcoal and processed cheese found in the tents proved the protest was foreign funded, without explanation. The accusations were reminiscent of those leveled by the regime of ousted President Hosni Mubarak against the protesters who rose up against his rule in early 2011.
As news of the attack spread, more anti-Morsi protesters arrived on the scene. Buses, shown in videos parked nearby, brought in Brotherhood supporters. By sunset a full-fledged street battle transformed Heliopolis into a war zone. The battle spread out over at least three fronts in streets surrounding the palace. Protesters and witnesses say up to 12,000 Morsi supporters were involved in fighting against a few thousand protesters, including residents of the area.
The fighting raged on three main fronts on streets around the palace. Bearded men in short robes waved sticks in the air as they chased groups of young men and women down small and darkened alleys around the palace while gunfire echoed in the background.
A resident of a building overlooking one of the front lines said Morsi supporters operated by what appeared to be a well-rehearsed plan. They came prepared with metal sheets to set up as barricades, motorcycles with small trailers attached brought loads of stones to the front lines to pelt protesters with. The resident spoke on condition his name not be used for fear of retribution.
Some Morsi supporters were armed with rifles, firing from the edges of the front lines to avoid being detected, said Mahmoud Zaghloul, a 22-year old protester who got hit with a rock in his head. He also said many in the Morsi camp came prepared with helmets with plexi-glass face screens.
At least one video shown on a private TV station shows a man in the Morsi camp, wearing a full helmet, taking a professional shooter position, bending his knees and aiming with a rifle at the opponents' camp.
"One of the most disturbing things was how they chanted 'God is Great' as they aimed at us," as if they were firing at infidels, Zaghloul said.
Some in the anti-Morsi camp also had firearms, witnesses said. At least one amateur video circulating online that showed an anti-Morsi protester pointing a pistol from behind a barricade at the opposing camp.
Mourad Aly, a Brotherhood party spokesman, said the number of Brotherhood members injured, killed and shot is higher than those on the other side, indicating the pro-Morsi said was the victim of violence, not its instigator.
"The group and the party don't use violence and have no inclination to the use of violence," he said.
"We will never allow an attack or breach on the palace," Aly said.