CAIRO // Tens of thousands of opponents of Egypt's military-backed government poured into the streets of central Cairo yesterday, sparking clashes with security forces that left dozens dead.
Clamouring wildly for the fall of military chief General Abdel Fattah El Sisi, the crowds faced off against police and army troops in a powerful show of anger at the crushing of Islamists sit-ins this week.
Military helicopters circled overhead as residents set up checkpoints throughout the capital. Police fired tear gas as clashes erupted between Muslim Brotherhood supporters and locals opposed to their protest, as the demonstrators marched to the city centre.
There were conflicting reports on the number of casualties. Dozens of bodies piled up in a makeshift field hospital in Al Fath mosque downtown, with security officials telling Reuters the death toll was at least 50, with at least 20 more killed in clashes elsewhere in Egypt. Other reports had the death toll as high as 80.
Ignited by the outrage over the deaths of hundreds of people on Wednesday during the government's clampdown on the two protest camps, the protests raged into the late afternoon. The interior ministry said 638 people were killed, while Brotherhood members believe thousands died.
Before the clashes broke out, men with their names scrawled on their arms so they could identified if they were killed rallied at Al Fath mosque. They had said they were ready to joins the hundreds of Islamists who died this week.
Hundreds of people gathered at the mosque, where the sermon was given by Saleh Sultan, a prominent Islamist who spoke often at the Rabia Al Adawiyya camp that was destroyed by security forces on Wednesday.
Holding pictures of the Islamist president Mohammed Morsi, who was unseated by the military on July 3 a year after being elected, many of the men sobbed as they prayed. Most people had lost someone they knew in the violence of the last week.
"Whoever kills a soul unless for a soul or for corruption in the land, it is as if he has slain mankind entirely," Sheikh Sultan said, quoting a Quranic verse intended to condemn the actions of the security forces.
Many worshippers spoke of increasing isolation in their neighbourhoods and fear of violence from civilian opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood movement.
"My neighbours are Coptic Christians," said Abdullah Morad, 52, who lives in the Shubra area. "They were friends for more than 45 years, but the Christians change their minds - I don't know why. They refuse to talk to us."
The Coptic Pope Tawadros II has condemned the Muslim Brotherhood for several attacks on churches since Wednesday's unrest.
Mr Morad said his neighbours had put a poster of Gen Al Sisi in their window, "to provoke me".
Others spoke of their fear that vigilante groups, often armed with sticks and clubs that have sprung up across Cairo, would attack them.
"I heard about someone whose beard was shaved, and he was tortured," said Malik Farag, a religious scholar, who said he stayed on side streets to avoid the "thugs".
Ahmed Kamel, 26, an art student from the upscale Maadi neighbourhood, said he had seen a man killed near a civilian checkpoint the previous night.
"I was just passing by, and I saw him lying on the ground, a bearded man," Mr Kamel said. "In my area, I am always afraid to tell people I am anti-coup and that's why I always try to hide my political orientation."
During the sermon, Sheikh Sultan called for demonstrations to remain peaceful, and demonstrators universally proclaimed non-violence. But an hour after prayers, and thousands of people surged from mosques across Cairo, over the bridges and into the streets, the crowd became frenzied.
Some people called to burn police stations, thousands chanted that the police were thugs. Unimpeded by any security forces until they reached the May 15 bridge over the Nile, they marched ahead angrily.
By midafternoon, they filled the corniche on the banks of the Nile, and were kept back from the area around the British embassy and Kempinsky hotel with tear gas.
By late evening, Al Jazeera television reported that it had counted 53 bodies in the mosque. Gunshots echoed round the posh Zamalek neighbourhood until late afternoon, with residents reporting that they had seen civilians, as well as uniformed police and army, participating in heavy fighting on the May 15 bridge over the island.
An interior ministry statement called for "civilians" to leave the city centre so that clearing operations could begin. The ministry on Thursday had issued a statement authorising the use of live ammunition to protect government buildings.
* With additional reporting by the Associated Press