Egypt leaders debate future of Muslim Brotherhood as dozens of pro-Morsi prisoners killed


Egyptian leaders gave differing hints at the future of the country’s powerful Muslim Brotherhood political party on Sunday, as a protest organization led by the Brotherhood said that 38 pro-Mohammed Morsi prisoners were killed during a prisoner transfer.

The detainees were killed after a vehicle taking them to Abu Zaabal prison was attacked, according to a statement from the Anti-Coup Alliance, which is led by the Brotherhood. The detainees were “reportedly assassinated in their truck with live ammunition and tear gas fired from windows,” the alliance said.


The Egyptian interior ministry, however, said that 36 prisoners had been killed, and that the deaths came after an attempted escape that involved the kidnapping of a police officer. The abducted officer was freed by other security forces, the interior ministry said in a statement, and the three dozen prisoners were killed after tear gas was used in the police operation, causing them to suffocate.

The detainees who were being transferred to the Abu Zaabal prison had spent the previous day at two police stations in the Cairo district of Nasr City, according lawyers for the Anti-Coup Alliance, who cited Ahmad Mefreh, a researcher with human rights group al Karama. In a statement, the alliance said Mefreh reported that the detainees were beaten at the police stations, were given little food, and were not given medical attention.

Guards involved in prison transfers are not usually equipped with tear gas, Mefreh told the Anti-Coup Alliance.

An investigation of the incident has been launched, according to the interior ministry statement.

Elsewhere, people seemed to return without incident to the bloodied streets of Cairo on Sunday, Reuters reported, following a chaotic week that began when authorities moved in to clear camps occupied by pro-Morsi demonstrators in the city.

As many as 800 people have died in the crackdown, according to the news service, including 79 police officers. The worsening situation has created tension between the United States and Egypt’s interim government, and a U.S. official confirmed to NBC News on Sunday that the Obama administration is considering canceling a delivery of AH-64D Apache Longbow helicopters that was scheduled to arrive in Egypt this fall.

Saudi Arabia warned on Sunday that Western pressure on the interim government would do little to improve the situation. French President Francois Hollande and Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal called for new elections, Reuters reported, and on Thursday Hollande said military authorities should bring a quick end to the country’s state of emergency.

“We will not achieve anything through threats,” the Saudi foreign minister told reporters on Sunday in the midst of a trip to Paris, according to the news service.

A plain clothes policeman points his gun as security forces escort Muslim Brotherhood members through supporters of the interim government installed by the army from the al-Fath mosque on Ramses Square in Cairo. Amr Abdallah Dalsh / Reuters

Security forces moved into the Al-Fath mosque in Ramses Square on Saturday, where protesters had taken refuge and organized an ad hoc field hospital. A siege of the mosque had begun the night before, after armed men also took cover in the building and barricaded themselves inside, according to the Associated Press.

At one point on Saturday afternoon, police appeared to exchange gunfire with someone inside the mosque's minaret.

On Sunday, the Brotherhood's status going forward was the topic of much debate.

Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi has suggested that the Muslim Brotherhood could be dissolved, essentially forcing the organization underground.

The country’s top military official, however, seemed to suggest on Sunday that reconciliation between the country’s government and the group that supports the deposed Morsi might still be possible.

Addressing a gathering of military and police officers on Sunday, military chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said in a speech on Sunday that “there is room for everyone in Egypt,” according to Reuters.

Sunday’s remarks were the first al-Sisi has made since security forces in Egypt cracked down on supporters of the deposed Morsi last week.

Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy expressed sadness over the continuing loss of life at a press event on Sunday, saying that the government still would like to seek a political solution to the unrest.

Regular Egyptians have for the most part been supportive of the crackdown on the Brotherhood, with officials saying that Western media coverage has ignored the attacks on police and Islamist destruction of churches, Reuters reported. One Egyptian man who protested against Morsi last year says he finds it hard to oppose the crackdown.

“I tried to sympathize with the Brotherhood but could not,” Hussein Ismail, 32, told Reuters. “They defended the army when they attacked and killed Christian protesters in 2011. They slammed liberals, women and Copts when they asked for more freedoms, rights. Do you think those people really cared about democracy?”

“Day of Rage” protests called by the Brotherhood on Friday ended in 173 deaths. In a statement on the Brotherhood’s website dated Aug. 17, the Anti-Coup Alliance called for a week of protests in Cairo as well as Giza and other locations around the country.

The degenerating situation has caught politicians in the United States between their support for more democratic institutions in Egypt and questions of whether or not to suspend $1.5 billion in aid given to a country which may or may be in the midst of a military coup.

The Apache helicopter delivery being reconsidered by the White House was part of an $820 million foreign military sale announced in May of 2009. The shipment was also to include 28 Hellfire Longbow missile launchers in addition to the dozen Apaches. The Egyptian military has bought Apaches before, purchasing 36 in 1995.

While no decision has been made regarding postponing or canceling the delivery of the military helicopters, “some change to the delivery is under consideration,” the U.S. official said on Sunday.

On Sunday, two lawmakers on the Senate Armed Services Committee said that it is time to reconsider that aid.

“With the recent violent crackdown I do not see how we can continue aid,” Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire said on NBC’s Meet the Press. “I believe it must be suspended because unfortunately I think that the military’s gotten the impression – particularly with the president not asking for aid to be suspended when he spoke this week – that whatever they do we will continue our aid.”

Democrat Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island said that aid should be cut off but that President Obama should work to “engage” with the country’s interim government.

"The acts of the last few days by the Egyptian military are completely unconscionable and I do believe we have to change our aid," said Reed. "I think also we have to have included in the legislation a national security waiver because we have to give the president not only the responsibility to deal with the government of Egypt but also flexibility." 

NBC News’ Matthew DeLuca, Carrie Dann and Taha Belal, and Reuters, contributed to this report.