CAIRO – Egypt's military-backed rulers are pressing on in their crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood with the arrest early Tuesday of the group's spiritual leader who had been in hiding near the huge sit-in in support of the country's ousted Islamist president, which security forces violently dispersed a week ago, leaving hundreds dead.
The arrest of Mohammed Badie — the supreme leader of the Brotherhood, the Islamist group from which ousted president Mohammed Morsi hails — followed a chaotic day of bloodshed that saw 25 policemen killed in a militant ambush in Sinai and a court ruling announcing the possibility that the jailed ex-president Hosni Mubarak could walk free later this week.
Mubarak's release could fuel the unrest roiling the country after Morsi, Egypt's first democratically elected president and the autocratic Mubarak's successor, was removed in a military coup on July 3.
Underscoring the growing anger over Morsi's ouster, suspected Islamic militants on Monday ambushed two minibuses carrying off-duty policemen in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, forcing the men to lie on the sand and shooting 25 of them dead.
The brazen daylight attack raised fears that the strategic desert region bordering Israel and the Gaza Strip could be plunged into a full-fledged insurgency.
Badie was captured early Tuesday in an apartment in the eastern Cairo district of Nasr City, according to security officials and state television, very close to where Morsi's supporters held a six-week sit-in protest that was cleared by security forces last Wednesday.
The private ONTV network showed footage of a man the network said was Badie after his arrest. In the footage, a somber looking Badie in an off-white Arab robe, or galabiyah, sits motionless on a sofa as a man in civilian clothes and carrying an assault rifle stands nearby.
Badie and his powerful deputy Khairat el-Shater, who is in custody, go on trial later this month for their alleged role in the killing of eight protesters outside the Brotherhood's Cairo headquarters in June. His arrest is a serious blow to the group at a time when authorities are cracking down on its leaders and mid-ranking officials, detaining scores of them across the country.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
Late Monday, the 25 slain police officers were given a funeral with full military honors. The men's coffins, draped in red, white and black Egyptian flags, were jointly carried by army soldiers and policemen, and Egypt's interim President Adly Mansour declared a nationwide state of mourning to mark their deaths.
Mubarak, 85, has been in detention since April 2011, two months after he was ousted in a revolution against his rule.
He was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison last year for failing to stop the killing of some 900 protesters in the 18-day uprising. His sentence was overturned on appeal and he is now being retried, along with his security chief and six top police commanders.
Two judicial officials said Mubarak could walk free this week or next after a criminal court on Monday ordered his release in a corruption case in which he and his two sons were accused of embezzling funds for the maintenance of presidential palaces. His sons were ordered kept in custody.
Monday's ruling, along with the fact that Mubarak had previously been ordered released in the killings of the protesters opened the possibility of freedom for the former president, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
There will no longer be any grounds to hold him if a court accepts a petition by his lawyer requesting his release in a third case later this week or next.
But freeing Mubarak, widely hated for widespread abuses and repression during his 29 years in power, during one of the worst bouts of turmoil since his ouster would be a huge risk for the military-backed government.
It could lend credibility to allegations that the mass protests that preceded the July 3 coup that toppled Morsi were the work of Mubarak-era figures searching for a way to reinstate the former regime.
Last week, the military raided two protest camps of Morsi's supporters in Cairo, killing hundreds of people and triggering a wave of violence that has left at least 1,000 people dead.
Human Rights Watch, in a report Monday, accused Egyptian security forces of using excessive force when they moved to clear the larger of the two camps. The New York-based group said the assault amounted to the "most serious incident of mass unlawful killings in modern Egyptian history."
It called on authorities to reverse a recent decision authorizing the use of deadly force by security forces when they come under attack or when key government facilities are assaulted.
The Sinai Peninsula has long been wracked by violence by al-Qaida-linked fighters, some who consider Morsi's Brotherhood to be too moderate, and tribesmen who have used the area for smuggling and other criminal activity. Attacks, especially those targeting security forces, have been on the rise since Morsi's ouster.
Monday's attack targeting the police officers took place near the border town of Rafah in northern Sinai. A few hours later, militants shot to death a senior police officer as he stood guard outside a bank in el-Arish, another city in the largely lawless area, security officials said.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for either attack. The United States condemned the slaying of the police officers and repeated its commitment to help Egypt combat terrorism in Sinai. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also denounced the attack.
The Sinai attack came a day after security forces killed 36 detainees during a riot on a prison-bound truck convoy north of Cairo. The killings came as police fired tear gas to free a guard who was trapped in the melee, security officials said.
The government ordered an inquiry into the deaths, which it blamed on armed men allegedly trying to help the 600 Muslim Brotherhood detainees escape. It gave no details.
The Brotherhood blamed military chief, Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, and the interior minister for Sunday's killings. The group also called for an international inquiry into the deaths.
The United States said it was troubled by the "suspicious deaths" of the prisoners.
"We call on all Egypt's leaders and the international community to condemn such attacks without equivocation," said Psaki, the State Department spokeswoman.
Amnesty International demanded a "full, impartial and effective" probe into the events.
Morsi has been held in an undisclosed location since his ouster. On Monday, prosecutors ordered his detention for 15 days in connection with allegations that he conspired to kill and torture protesters during mass demonstrations by the opposition outside his presidential palace in December 2012.