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Hundreds in Egypt take on police in violent clashes

| Friday, Dec. 27, 2013, 8:57 p.m.
A supporter of the army and police throws a gasoline bomb atstudents of Al-Azhar University, who are supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood on Friday, Dec. 27, 2013 in Cairo.

CAIRO — With water cannons and tear gas, Egyptian riot police battled on Friday with hundreds of rock-throwing supporters of ousted ex-President Mohamed Morsy in clashes across the country that left five dead, according to officials.

Authorities took up a new tactic to contain protests called by Morsy's Muslim Brotherhood group and its allies, calling on large families to post armed men near the likely sites of demonstrations.

Friday is the day of the week in Egypt in which protests are typically at their largest.

The day's demonstrations follow an announcement by the authorities that they will use Brotherhood's new designation as a terrorist organization to levy harsh prison sentence on protesters. It poses the first test of whether that will deter them.

In at least seven southern provinces, security and local officials said that the authorities turned to armed civilians from anti-Islamist and pro-government families to provide support to security forces, help guard police stations and churches and confront pro-Morsy rallies.

One high-ranking Interior Ministry official said that this is part of a bigger deal between the security apparatus and the big clans in the south, the most conservative part of Egypt, which has a strong tradition both of inter-family feuding and of Islamist militancy.

Families would hand over heavy weapons to the government but would be allowed to carry lighter ones when facing off with Islamists, and in return, authorities would support candidates from those families in upcoming parliamentary elections.

The tactic is not new in Egypt. In the 1990s, during the Islamic insurgency against ousted President Hosni Mubarak, the government formed “popular committees” in which relatives of ruling party members, parliamentarians and other prominent government allies helped expel militants from towns and cities.

In at least two incidents on Friday in the southern provinces of Assiut and Qena, witnesses said, two small rallies quickly dispersed when pro-government civilians mounting pickups fired their machine guns into the air, driving protesters away.

In Cairo, riot police chased rock-throwing and gasoline-bomb-hurling student protesters chanting against the military and the police at the Islamic Al-Azhar University. In a second district of Alf Maskan, an Associated Press cameraman saw Islamist protesters hurling Molotov cocktails and fireworks at security forces while civilians on the police side hurled stones.

The street was littered with rocks, shattered glass and black soot.

In a statement, Egypt's Interior Ministry said a total of three people were killed. Three police vehicles were set on fire, and 265 protesters, including women, were arrested, it said.

Two security officials in the southern city of Minya and Aswan said that two pro-Morsy supporters were killed in the clashes, bringing the total number of deaths to five.

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