CAIRO (AP) — Egyptian authorities on Sunday accused the ousted president's Muslim Brotherhood of forming a "military wing" to stage attacks on security forces in a southern province, as months-long street rallies by the group's supporters wane but low-level violence steadily rises.
Such a development would cast yet another shadow over an already wavering security situation in the Arab world's most populous country, plagued by a series of bombings and suicide attacks since the army overthrew Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in a popularly backed coup last July.
The Brotherhood has always denied violence and accuses authorities of orchestrating attacks to justify a crackdown that has only intensified since the interim government labeled it a terrorist organization. An al-Qaida-inspired group based in the eastern Sinai Peninsula has claimed responsibility for most of the attacks over the past months.
However, the government's Sunday accusation comes amid what analysts perceive as a spreading insurgency by previously unknown, smaller groups, who use weapons like Molotov cocktails and home-made grenades to attack security forces. They say the groups were founded by pro-Morsi supporters who are frustrated by the decline in demonstrations and a continuous heavy-handed security crackdown.
The alleged armed branch evoked by the Interior Ministry Sunday was described as being based in the city of Beni Suef, some 115 km (71 miles) south of Cairo. Ministry spokesman Hani Abdel-Latif named 12 people he said belonged to the alleged Brotherhood-led unit.
In a televised statement, Abdel-Latif said the group ran surveillance, hunted down security forces, and provided shelter for militants. The ministry accused the men of killing five policemen and plotting more attacks.
Abdel-Latif's statement was followed by footage of a man who identified himself as part of a group that killed five policemen in attacks from motorcycles last month. He said he was the son of a Brotherhood leader and had received weapons training.
The smaller, previously unknown groups authorities believe to be disgruntled Brotherhood supporters are staging acts of vandalism such as burning police vehicles or attacking troop barracks, claiming responsibility for the attacks on social networking sites and online Jihadi forums. These groups reject the Brotherhood's official policy of staging only peaceful demonstrations. Meanwhile, security forces have been arresting the administrators of Facebook pages accused of inciting attacks against police.
"The people in these movements are likely from among those who refuse the coup," said Magdy Qorqor, a spokesman for the main Brotherhood-led alliance, referring to Morsi's ouster. The escalation by security forces comes nearly two months ahead of presidential elections following Morsi's July overthrow, after millions took to the streets demanding his resignation.
Morsi's Islamist group and his allies have staged non-stop demonstrations since, denouncing a deadly crackdown by security forces on their supporters and demanding his reinstatement. Witnesses say that weapons are increasingly appearing at pro-Morsi protests, which often deteriorate into gunbattles where demonstrators are the first to fall.
Mohammed el-Damati, one of Morsi's chief lawyers defending him against a slew of charges including incitement to murder, said pro-Brotherhood demonstrators were turning away from peaceful methods. "This is certainly a regression from peaceful means," he said. "The leadership is no longer able to get in touch with the street. They are either in prison or fled the country. Now it is the street that is leading."
A leading Brother hood member in the southern province of Assiut said young demonstrators are no longer capable of holding peaceful rallies where they get arrested, killed or injured. "Now there are two options for the youth. Either they become martyrs or they isolate from society," the youth leader said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. He added that young demonstrators turn toward violence was an "individual reaction" to the "deep injustice" they faced.
Secular-minded and liberal youth groups have denounced what has become a climate of both official and private intimidation against critics of the authorities. Some of the icons of the 2011 uprising that overthrew longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak have even been jailed.
Leading Egyptian Islamist and former presidential candidate Abdel-Moneim Abolfotoh warned that the ongoing crackdown by the military-backed interim government has terrified most of the country. "You created the republic of fear," he roared at a news conference Sunday.
Abolfotoh, who joined mass protests against Morsi last summer, repeated that he will not contest this spring's upcoming presidential election. He came in fourth in the 2012 presidential vote after defecting from the Brotherhood. He also called the vote a "farce" since it would take place amid "suppression."
He also criticized the military for throwing its weight behind army chief Field Marshal Abdel-Fatah el-Sissi's likely presidential bid. El-Sissi enjoys wide popularity among many Egyptians who see him as a savoir after leading the July coup.
Following a series of bombings and suicide attacks, authorities branded the Brotherhood a terrorist organization, which it categorically denies. An al-Qaida inspired group has claimed responsibility for most of the bombings.
Among the newly emerged groups claiming attacks on state property is one called "On Fire." Its Facebook page, filled with pictures of masked young men in black clothes, says the group aims to "battle the coup, overcome it, by all means without killing. The regime will fall and we will celebrate victory soon."
The group distances itself from the Brotherhood and says it only sets fire to police vehicles used in killings and suppression. Another group, called "Molotov Against the Coup" wrote that it had declared open season on policemen and planned to attack the property of police officials, judges and media moguls.
"The worst is yet to come," it said on Facebook, noting that it had obtained the home addresses of thousands of policemen.