Egyptian authorities are considering disbanding the Muslim Brotherhood on the heels of security forces storming a Cairo mosque where hundreds of Islamist supporters of the country's ousted president were barricaded inside, a government spokesman said.
Witnesses say Egyptian security forces stormed the mosque after firing tear gas at hundreds of former President Mohammed Morsi supporters.
Local journalist Shaimaa Awad told The Associated Press that security forces rounded up pro-Morsi protesters inside al-Fatah mosque, located in Cairo's central Ramses Square and the sound of gunfire could be heard in the background. Footage from inside the mosque showed protesters huddling on the green carpeted floor next to the wounded, and furniture barricading the doors.
Egypt's official news agency MENA reported that gunmen opened fire on security forces from the mosque's minaret. Local television stations broadcast live footage of soldiers firing assault rifles at the minaret.
Security forces in armored personnel carriers surrounded the mosque and appeared to be firing automatic weapons from their vehicles. It was not apparent to a reporter on the ground that protestors in the mosque were firing back, contrary to government arguments that supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood were armed and committing terrorist acts that needed to be squashed by state security forces, The Wall Street Journal reported.
"No one inside has any guns, so why are they shooting them?" witness Ahmed Atef said.
Security officials said officers raided the Ramses Square mosque out of fears the Muslim Brotherhood again planned to set up a sit-in similar to those broken up Wednesday in assaults that killed hundreds of people.
The mosque served as a field hospital and morgue following clashes Friday in the area. At least 400 protesters barricaded themselves inside overnight out of fears of being beaten by vigilante mobs or being arrested by authorities. The Muslim Brotherhood held the pinnacle of government power just more than a month earlier.
Cabinet spokesman Sheriff Shawki said that Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi, who leads the military-backed government, assigned the Ministry of Social Solidarity to study the legal possibilities of dissolving the Muslim Brotherhood. The group, founded in 1928, came to power a year ago when its Morsi was elected in the country's first free presidential elections. The election came after the overthrow of autocrat Hosni Mubarak in a popular uprising in 2011.
Such a ban -- which authorities say is rooted in the group's use of violence -- would be a repeat to the historic and decades-long power struggle between the state and the Brotherhood. It also could provoke more unrest.
The fundamentalist group has been banned for most of its 85-year history and repeatedly subjected to crackdowns under Mubarak's rule.
While sometimes tolerated and its leaders part of the political process, members regularly faced long bouts of imprisonment and arbitrary detentions.
Disbanding the group, experts say, would mean allowing security forces to have a zero-tolerance policy in dealing with the group's street protests, as well as going after its funding sources. That could cripple the Brotherhood, though it likely wouldn't mean an end to a group that existed underground for decades
The possible banning comes amid calls by pro-military political forces to brand the Brotherhood a "terrorist organization."
"We are calling for declaring the Brotherhood as a terrorist group," said Mohammed Abdel-Aziz, one of the leaders of the Tamarod youth movement that had organized mass rallies calling Morsi's ouster.
Meanwhile, the Brotherhood called for a week of daily nationwide protests starting on Saturday, a day after fierce street clashes between security forces and protesters left at least 173 people dead, including 10 policemen.
"We call on the Egyptian people and national forces to protest daily until the coup ends," the Muslim Brotherhood said in a statement in reference to the army's overthrow of Morsi last month, according to a Reuters report.
Egypt's Interior Ministry said Saturday that 1,004 Muslim Brotherhood "elements" had been arrested for alleged acts of terrorism during the clashes, Reuters reported.
Also Saturday, authorities arrested the brother of Al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahri, a security official said. Mohammed al-Zawahri, leader of the ultraconservative Jihadi Salafist group, was detained at a checkpoint in Giza, the city across the Nile from Cairo, the official said.
The violence capped off a week that saw more than 700 people killed across the country. That toll surpasses the combined death toll from two and a half years of violent protests since the ouster Mubarak to the July 3 coup that toppled Morsi.
At churches across the country, residents formed human chains to try to protect them from further assaults, and a civilian was killed while trying to protect a church in Sohag, south of Cairo, authorities said.
Many of Morsi's supporters have criticized Egypt's Christian minority for largely supporting the military's decision to remove him from office, and dozens of churches have been attacked this week. The coup that ousted Morsi followed days of protests by millions of Egyptians demanding the Islamist leader step down.
Mourad Ali, a spokesman for the Brotherhood, denounced the attacks on churches, saying they ran counter to Islamic principles and were an attempt to ignite sectarian divisions.
"Our stance is clear. ... We strongly condemn any attack -- even verbal -- on churches and on Coptic property. This holds true whether or not Coptic leaders joined in or supported the July 3 coup. ... This does not justify any attack on them," he said in an online statement.
The revolutionary and liberal groups that helped topple Morsi have largely stayed away from the street rallies in recent weeks. The Popular Current, a leftist anti-Morsi group, said they were "astounded" by how some in the international community have denounced Wednesday's move against the Islamist protest camps as "state violence against civilians."
The government, bolstered by wealthy Arab Gulf states opposed to the Brotherhood, has branded the crackdown on Islamists as part of a wider fight against "terrorists".
Egypt's government released a statement Friday accusing "terrorist groups" and "outlaws" of confronting security forces, which it said must "stand together against a terrorist plot." The interim Cabinet authorized police to use of deadly force against anyone targeting police and state institutions.
"We are not only dealing with the disbandment of a sit-in, but with the extermination of the Egyptian people to subject them to military rule with steel and fire," the group said in a statement, warning that differences will deepen," the Brotherhood's political wing said in a statement.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.