CAIRO, (Reuters) – Egyptian police used batons against tens of Muslim Brotherhood loyalists on Friday and turned away hundreds of worshippers to block a protest against an Israeli dig near Jerusalem’s most sacred Muslim shrine, witnesses said.
Riot police chased some protesters through the narrow alleys of one of Cairo’s ancient Islamic neighbourhoods, a Reuters witness said. Police hit a photographer working for Reuters with a stick and barred him from taking pictures.
Hundreds of riot police and plainclothes security agents manned road blocks and turned away hundreds of worshippers who flocked for Friday’s mass prayers at al-Azhar mosque, where the Muslim Brotherhood was planning to hold a protest against the Israeli excavations near Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque. “They (the police) are just doing like Israel,” said one young worshipper who was denied entrance to the mosque. “They are only allowing the elderly inside,” he said, referring to similar occasional Israeli practices against Palestinian worshippers in Jerusalem, citing security reasons.
Witnesses and a Brotherhood source said police picked up several Islamists but security officials could not immediately confirm the detentions.
The excavations, which Israel says aim to salvage artefacts before construction of a pedestrian bridge leading to a complex also sacred to Jews, have angered Muslims who fear the work can damage the foundations of the ancient al-Aqsa mosque. Israel says the holy laces would not be harmed. But the Cairo demonstration was mainly seen as a chance for the Brotherhood, Egypt’s biggest opposition group despite being banned, to take to the streets to oppose the crackdown against its members and activities.
Egypt this week referred the Brotherhood’s third-in-command Khairat el-Shatir and 39 other members to a military trial on charges including membership of a banned group, money laundering and terrorism.
“No to military trials,” read one banner carried by several protesters. “The Zionists barred us from al-Aqsa and the tyrants barred us from al-Azhar,” others chanted.
Authorities have also frozen the assets of Shatir, who is believed to be a financier of the group, and 29 other members.
Analysts say the government wants to stop the Brotherhood before it makes enough gains in coming elections to bypass rules aimed at blocking it from eventually mounting a real threat to the rule of President Hosni Mubarak, in power since 1981. Brotherhood members running as independents won nearly one-fifth of the influential lower house of the parliament in 2005.