CAIRO // Thousands of supporters of the ousted president Mohammed Morsi stood their ground in Cairo yesterday, saying they would not leave the streets despite "massacres" by security forces who shot dozens of them dead.
Egypt's interim government showed no signs of backing down either, as the interior minister, Mohammed Ibrahim, promised to deal decisively with any attempts to destabilise the country - a thinly veiled warning to Morsi supporters who are occupying two squares in Cairo in a month-long stand-off with the security forces.
"I assure the people of Egypt that the police are determined to maintain security and safety to their nation and are capable of doing so," Mr Ibrahim told a graduation ceremony at the national police academy. "We will very decisively deal with any attempt to undermine stability."
Reinforcing the stern message, Egypt's interim president, Adly Mansour, has authorised the prime minister to grant the military the right to arrest civilians. Mr Mansour's decree was published yesterday in the government's official gazette.
The warnings came a day after security forces opened fire with tear gas on a group of Morsi supporters in an attempt to drive them away from a Cairo flyover. Egypt's ambulance service said 72 people were killed in the nine hours of violence that ensued.
In response to the bloodshed, the United Nations human rights chief, Navi Pillay, warned that confrontation was "leading to disaster", and the United States urged its ally to "pull back from the brink", calling on the security forces to respect the right of peaceful protest.
The US secretary of defence, Chuck Hagel, spoke to military chief Abdel Fattah El Sisi, and secretary of state John Kerry spoke with vice president Mohamed ElBaradei and foreign minister Nabil Fahmy. Afterward, Mr Kerry called for an independent inquiry into the weekend's violence.
The European Union's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, was due to arrive in Egypt for talks yesterday evening, according to the vice president's office.
"Ashton will begin a visit to Cairo this evening during which she will meet with president Adly Mansour, vice president for international affairs Mohammed ElBaradei and Egyptian officials," Mr ElBaradei's office said.
Ms Ashton's previous visit to Cairo was on July 16, when she met members of the new government and the Muslim Brotherhood and called for Mr Morsi to be released
The Brotherhood, which won repeated elections after the fall of autocrat Hosni Mubarak in 2011, has vowed not to leave the streets unless Mr Morsi is restored to power.
His supporters accuse the military of reversing the February 2011 uprising that brought democracy to the most populous Arab state.
"They will not be content until they bring back everything from the era of the corrupt, murderous security and intelligence state," senior Brotherhood official Essam El Erian said.
"They've stepped up their efforts to do so by committing massacres never before seen in Egyptian history."
Although Cairo was quiet yesterday morning, violent clashes rattled the Suez Canal city of Port Said, with a 17-year-old killed in fighting between the pro- and anti-Morsi camps and a further 29 people injured, security sources said.
The violence has deeply polarised Egypt, with its secular and liberal elite so far showing little sympathy for the Brotherhood or reservations about the return to power of a military that ruled for 60 years before the 2011 upheaval.
In one of the first signs of doubt from within the interim cabinet installed after the military takeover, deputy prime minister for economic affairs Ziad Bahaa Eldin said yesterday the government must not copy the "oppressive and exclusionary policies" of its foes.
The Tamarod youth protest movement, which mobilised millions of people against Mr Morsi and has fully backed the army, expressed alarm at an announcement that the interior minister was reviving the feared secret political police that was shut down after Mr Mubarak was toppled.
The killings on Saturday morning came a day after mass demonstrations called by Gen El Sisi to show public support for a crackdown on "terrorism", which the Brotherhood sees as justifying an onslaught against it.
Pro-Morsi demonstrators camped outside the Rabaa El Adaweya mosque in eastern Cairo said they were confronted by police and unidentified armed men in civilian clothes.
"Police and thugs came and shot at us with live ammunition," said Ramy Mohamed, a 33-year-old civil lawyer who witnessed the clashes. He denied that protesters were carrying weapons, but said that many demonstrators - everyone "from youth to sheikhs" - were throwing rocks.
Describing the scene, Dr Rasha Refaat, a doctor who had been working for the past two weeks at the field hospital outside the Rabaa El Adaweya mosque, said: "We saw gunshot wounds to the head and neck as well as suffocation from tear gas."
Authorities concede that the vast majority of the dead in Cairo were demonstrators, but the interior ministry said some policemen were wounded and it is not clear if civilians who sided with police were among the dead.
Yesterday morning, army vehicles still surrounded entrances and exits to the square in north-east Cairo where thousands of Morsi supporters have been camped out for a month. Protesters have blocked the entrances to El Adaweya square with sandbags and sacks of concrete.
Some used pictures of Mr Morsi to shield their heads from the sun. Women and children were resting in tents set up near the main gathering area, which also houses a press centre, cell-phone tower and makeshift bathrooms.
"We are right, legitimacy is on our side and hopefully at the end God will lead us to triumph and we will not give up," said Mostafa Ali, 29 from the Nile delta town of Mansoura.
About 300 have died in violence since Gen El Sisi deposed Mr Morsi. Besides the Cairo bloodshed, some of the worse violence has been in the lawless Sinai peninsula, which borders Israel and the Palestinian Gaza Strip, where Islamist militants have vowed to battle government forces after the removal of Mr Morsi.
The state news agency Mena said yesterday that 10 "terrorist elements" in north Sinai had been killed and 20 others arrested in security sweeps over the previous 48 hours.
Mr Morsi has been held in army detention at an undisclosed location since he was deposed. Mr Ibrahim said he would likely be transferred shortly to the same Cairo prison where Mr Mubarak is now held, after authorities launched an investigation against him on charges, including murder, stemming from his 2011 escape from jail during the anti-Mubarak uprising.
* With additional reporting from Reuters and the Associated Press