CAIRO -- Egypt's military-backed government authorized security forces Thursday to fire live ammunition against opponents, underlining its determination to crush any lingering challenge posed by supporters of the country's ousted president following a bloody crackdown on their camps.
A day after Egyptian soldiers and police killed hundreds of people in an assault on two Muslim Brotherhood protest camps set up to call for reinstatement of deposed President Mohammed Morsi, the government pledged to use "all power" to confront the organization, creating the potential for further bloodshed.
With supporters of Mr. Morsi and of the military urging their followers to take to the streets again today, there seemed little prospect of an end anytime soon to the crisis that has paralyzed Egypt since June 30. That is when millions of protesters demanded the overthrow of their first democratically elected leader, prompting the military to detain Mr. Morsi and appoint a replacement.
There was further international fallout Thursday from the crackdown on the Brotherhood camps on Cairo's outskirts, with President Barack Obama announcing cancellation of joint military exercises next month with Egypt. The U.N. Security Council, which met in an emergency session Thursday evening, issued a statement that expressed sympathy "to the victims" of violence in Egypt, but stopped short of blaming the government for its crackdown. Turkey withdrew its ambassador from Egypt to protest the shootings.
The nationwide civilian death toll rose early Thursday to 578, according to Health Ministry spokesman Hamdi Abdo Wahid -- 318 of them in Cairo and 260 in other parts of Egypt. With many of their leaders jailed, Islamists reeled in shock at the worst mass killing in Egypt's modern history and bloodiest single day since Egyptians rose up against the three-decade-long presidency of Hosni Mubarak in January 2011. By Thursday night, health officials had counted 638 dead and more than 4,000 injured, but the final toll was expected to rise further. The Interior Ministry said Wednesday that 42 security force members also were killed in the clashes.
The largest single number of deaths -- 228 -- occurred near the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque in Cairo, which had become the protest movement epicenter. The mosque had housed most of the top Brotherhood leaders and members of Mr. Morsi's government who escaped an initial dragnet when he was toppled.
Thursday's tough statements from the government, coming on the heels of the ferocious crackdown, contributed to a sense that the military authorities have little interest in restoring Egypt's brief experiment with democracy, said Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar. "This new government isn't even pretending any more that it is anything other than a full-on dictatorship," he said. "Before yesterday's violence, there was at least a slight glimmer of hope for some kind of mediation or talks. Now, we know there will not be an inclusive political process or a real democratic transition."
While many of those killed were shot with bullets, and witnesses have described seeing soldiers and police firing guns, the military until now had insisted that it had issued orders to its soldiers to use only tear gas and birdshot to control the demonstrations. The latest order represented an escalation in the level of approved force.
The Interior Ministry said the authorization to use live ammunition followed an attack Thursday in which government offices were set ablaze, allegedly by Brotherhood supporters, in the Cairo suburb of Giza, near the famous pyramids. Citing the incident, the statement said that in order to "secure the homeland and to prevent attacks on lives and public and private property, the ministry has issued directions to all forces to use live ammunition in the face of any attacks on troops or installations.
"All those tempted to try to tamper with the security of the homeland and its resources will be confronted firmly and decisively, and in accordance with the law," the statement added.
Egypt's civilian Cabinet said the month-long state of emergency imposed Wednesday, which gives security services sweeping powers, is only a "temporary procedure forced by circumstances," and promised that some restrictions, which include a 7 p.m.-to-6 a.m. curfew, would be eased soon. The state of emergency imposed by Mubarak in 1981 lasted until after his overthrow in 2011.world
The New York Times contributed.