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Hopes for the creation of an inclusive interim government in Egypt took a sharp blow this morning, when at least 40 people were killed and hundreds wounded at a Muslim Brotherhood protest outside the Cairo headquarters of the army's Republican Guard.
Reuters reports that the Brotherhood said its members, who had been peacefully protesting outside the barracks where they believe ousted President Mohamed Morsi is being held, came under fire during morning prayers.
Abdelaziz Abdelshakua, from Sharqia Province northeast of Cairo, was wounded in his right leg with what he says was a live round.
"We were praying the dawn prayer and we heard there was shooting," he said. He said an army officer assured them no one was shooting, then suddenly they were under fire from the direction of the Republican Guard.
"They shot us with teargas, birdshot, rubber bullets – everything. Then they used live bullets."
Al Jazeera's Egypt news channel broadcast footage of what appeared to be five men killed in the violence, and medics trying to revive a man at a makeshift clinic at a nearby pro-Mursi sit-in.
But another protester told Agence France-Presse that while the military used tear gas and warning shots to disperse the crowd, the initial gunfire came from a group of men in civilian clothing, who attacked the protesters directly.
"The Republican Guard fired tear gas but the thugs came from the side. We were the target," protester Mahmud al-Shilli told AFP.
A military source described the attack as launched by "armed terrorists" who attempted to storm the barracks, killing one officer and injuring 40 more. The source said that the army opened fire only after coming under attack.
Regardless of who initiated the violence, the attack has threatened the army's efforts to establish an interim government with support of various anti-Morsi parties. Al Nour, a Salafist party that was the only Islamist group to support Mr. Morsi's ouster, said it was withdrawing from talks in response to the bloodshed, reports The Washington Post.
Nour “decided to withdraw immediately from all tracks of negotiations as a first reaction to the Republican Guard massacre,” Nadr Bakr, a spokesman, said on Twitter.
The Post notes that the group's departure "was a significant blow to an already fragile political process, whose organizers had sought not to exclude Islamists altogether."
The alienation of Egypt's Islamists and the Muslim Brotherhood, the country's largest and most firmly established political organization, poses a serious challenge to the country's future. Nathan Brown, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, told The Christian Science Monitor last week that the Brotherhood needs to be included in the transition, which must be deliberate and inclusive.
“Any process has to be inclusive and protracted and public,” he says, adding that so far, the signs for the new process are not positive. “The first signals are that you're going to have this committee appointed by the military, for constitutional amendments, in a hurry and rushed through. To me that's like saying the last map we used led us to drive off a cliff, so now that we've got a second chance let's go drive off the same cliff.”
The military, he says, should indicate to the Brotherhood that they are welcome to participate fully in the process. And the committee that writes the constitution should be “broad-based” and “take their time to make sure this is a consensual process.”
Yet that's likely to be thorny, as each of the parties who got at least some of what they wanted out of the 2012 constitution are unlikely to want to hand back their gains, including the military and salafis. Non-Islamist parties are acutely aware of this, and are attempting to maintain good relations with salafis until the constitution is agreed upon. It is unclear if the Brotherhood will participate in the process.