CAIRO (Reuters) - Egypt’s new interim leader held talks on Saturday with the army chief and political leaders on how to pull the country out of crisis as the death toll from Islamist protests over the army’s overthrow of President Mohamed Mursi rose to at least 35.
The most populous Arab nation of 84 million people was thrown into more turmoil on Friday when tens of thousands of demonstrators across the country answered a call by Mursi’s Muslim Brotherhood movement to stage a “Friday of Rejection”.
At least 35 people died and more than 1,000 were wounded in violence on Friday and Saturday, with the army struggling to maintain order in Cairo, Alexandria and other cities and towns, where pro- and anti-Mursi demonstrators fought street battles.
The most deadly clashes were in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria, where 14 people died and 200 were wounded.
In central Cairo, rival protesters clashed late into the night with stones, knives, petrol bombs and clubs as armoured personnel carriers rumbled among them.
It took hours to restore calm on the Nile River bridges around the landmark Egyptian Museum. Anti-Mursi activists remained encamped in a suburb of the capital.
Interim head of state Adli Mansour, installed to oversee a military roadmap to elections, spent his first day at the office at Itihadiya Palace, where until a week ago Mursi ran Egypt.
He met armed forces chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who announced Mursi’s ouster on Wednesday, and also held talks with former U.N. nuclear agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei, a leading liberal, and other politicians who had opposed Mursi.
ElBaradei, 71, is seen as the favourite to lead a new administration focused on reviving a shattered economy and restoring civil peace and security. An aide to ElBaradei said the prime minister was expected to be appointed on Saturday.
At the same meeting was Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh, a former Brotherhood member who split from the movement in 2011 to mount his own presidential bid, an official in his party said.
In defiant speeches, Brotherhood leaders continued to denounce Mursi’s overthrow and demand his reinstatement. Their stand may complicate the military-led political transition.
The army has given few details and no timeframe for elections, adding to political uncertainty at a time when many Egyptians fear violence could polarise society still further.
Egypt’s first freely elected president was toppled after mass demonstrations against Muslim Brotherhood rule, the latest twist in a tumultuous two years since the fall of Hosni Mubarak in the Arab uprisings that swept the region in 2011.
While the Brotherhood has insisted it will not resort to violence, some radical Islamists have no such inhibitions.
On Saturday, a Coptic Christian priest was shot dead in Egypt’s lawless North Sinai province in what could be the first sectarian attack since Mursi’s overthrow, raising concerns about the potential for further religious violence.
On Friday, five police officers were shot dead in separate incidents in the North Sinai town of El Arish, and while it was not clear whether the attacks were linked to Mursi’s ouster, hardline Islamists there have warned they will fight back.
There were more attacks on army checkpoints in Sinai overnight and gunmen fired on a central security building in El Arish, security sources said.
A new Islamist group announced its formation in the Sinai peninsula adjoining Israel and the Gaza Strip, calling the army’s removal of Mursi a declaration of war on their faith and threatening violence to impose Islamic law.
Ansar al-Shariah (Supporters of Islamic Law) in Egypt said it would gather arms and start training members, in a statement on an online forum for Sinai militants recorded by SITE Monitoring.
The events of the last week have raised alarm among Egypt’s allies in the West, including main aid donors the United States and the European Union, and in Israel, with which Egypt has had a U.S.-backed peace treaty since 1979.
Newspapers quoted ElBaradei as saying he expected Gulf Arab monarchies that were hostile to the Brotherhood’s rule to pile in with financial support for the new authorities.
Only gas-rich Qatar provided substantial funds to Mursi’s government with a total of $7 billion in loans and grants. Turkey and Libya also provided smaller loans and deposits.
Mursi’s overthrow was greeted with wild scenes of celebration but infuriated supporters who fear a return to the suppression of Islamists they endured under military rule.
In one of the first outbreaks of violence on Friday, three protesters were shot dead outside the Republican Guard compound where Mursi is being held, security sources said. The army denied responsibility for the shootings. It was not clear whether other security forces were involved.
On Saturday, some 2,000 people gathered outside the barracks. A man with a loudspeaker told soldiers separated from protesters by razor wire not to open fire.
Thousands more Islamists braved the fierce midday sun at a sit-in outside a nearby mosque. Shawled women shook their heads and wept as an imam led prayers for “martyrs” of the violence.
At least 15 tanks were positioned on streets leading to the square outside the mosque, but they were further away than on Friday in a sign the military was keen to ease tensions.
Elsewhere in Cairo, the retrial of former autocrat Mubarak resumed at a snail’s pace, in a bizarre coda to the past week’s drama. The 85-year-old, who ruled Egypt for 30 years, is charged with conspiracy to murder hundreds of demonstrators in 2011.
The judge adjourned the case until August 17. He said he would continue to show proceedings live on state television, despite unhappiness among army commanders at seeing their former head of state and air force chief paraded in a courtroom cage.
Reporting by Asma Alsharif, Mike Collett-White, Alexander Dziadosz, Maggie Fick, Alastair Macdonald, Sarah McFarlane, Shadia Nasralla, Tom Perry, Yasmine Saleh, Paul Taylor, and Patrick Werr in Cairo, Abdelrahman Youssef in Alexandria, Yursi Mohamed in Ismailia and Michelle Nichols in New York; Writing by Paul Taylor and Mike Collett-White; Editing by Alistair Lyon