CAIRO - Egyptian prosecutors accused ousted President Mohammed Morsi on Friday of conspiring with the Palestinian militant group Hamas and murder in his 2011 escape from prison that left 14 guards dead. The development fueled the likelihood of clashes as tens of thousands of supporters and opponents of the Islamist leader massed for rival rallies.
The surprise announcement about Morsi comes as Egypt's divisions deepen. Military chief Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi has urged the public to turn out in droves Friday to support the army while state media is whipping up sentiment against the Islamists.
El-Sissi's portrait pervaded the crowds of tens of thousands in Cairo's central Tahrir Square: the smiling general in sunglasses on posters proclaiming "the love of the people," a combination photo of the general and a lion on lanyards hanging from people's necks, a picture of his face photoshopped into a 1-pound note of currency.
"The people, the source of all power, mandate the army and police to purge terrorism," read a giant banner stretched across one entrance to Tahrir. Three tanks guarded another street leading into the square, and helicopters swooped overhead.
Morsi's Islamist backers, in turn, were packing their own rallies in Cairo and elsewhere Friday in what they called the day "to bring down the coup," referring to el-Sissi's July 3 deposing of Morsi, Egypt's first freely elected president. They accuse the general of pushing the country toward greater conflict with his call for a pro-military show of strength by the public Friday.
The prosecutors' announcement was the first word on Morsi's legal status since he was removed. For the past three weeks, he has been detained incommunicado by the military in an unknown location.
The start of legal proceedings could halt repeated calls by Western governments to free him or file charges. The announcement is the first step toward charges, meaning that prosecutors have formally begun criminal investigations against Morsi on the accusations.
A spokesman for Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood rejected the accusations, saying they showed "the complete bankruptcy of the leaders of the bloody coup."
Egyptians "reject the return of the dictatorial police state and all the repression, tyranny and theft it entails," Ahmed Aref said in a statement.
The Brotherhood and its allies have been holding sit-ins and protests demanding he be reinstated, and the past three weeks have seen repeated deadly clashes between Morsi supporters and opponents or security forces.
El-Sissi called for rallies Friday, saying he wanted a massive public "mandate" for the military to take action against "violence and terrorism." The unusual call raised a widespread belief he intends to take action against the pro-Morsi protests.
Security was heavy after el-Sissi vowed to protect the rallies from attacks by rivals. Tanks guarded one entrance to Tahrir and police were stationed at other parts. "The people give their mandate," read signs touted by many in the crowd.
"The army are here to protect the people, they don't lie," said Ezzat Fahmi, a 38-year-old in the crowd. He said el-Sissi had to call Friday's rallies "so the entire world can see that the Egyptian people don't want the Brotherhood anymore."
It remains unclear what steps the military is planning after Friday's show of public strength. The most explosive step would be if it were to try to break up sit-ins by Islamists who have been camped out at locations in Cairo and other cities for weeks. The military also could move to arrest more than a dozen Brotherhood figures who have arrest warrants against them.
Nearly 200 people have been killed since Morsi's fall, whether in clashes involving Morsi supporters and opponents or in Sinai violence. In the clashes, each side blames the other for sparking clashes, and members of both camps have been seen with weapons.
The prosecutors' announcement on Morsi could signal a greater move to go after the Brotherhood in courts. Besides Morsi, five other senior figures from the group have been detained.
The MENA news agency said Morsi has now been formally detained for 15 days pending the completion of the investigation into the accusations. It did not say, however, whether he would now be moved now to a regular detention facility where he could receive family visits. His detention can be extended as the inquiry continues. The news agency indicated that Morsi has already been interrogated.
MENA said Morsi was being investigated over allegations of collaborating with Hamas "to carry out anti-state acts, attacking police stations and army officers and storming prisons, setting fire to one prison and enabling inmates to flee, including himself, as well as premeditated killing of officers, soldiers
The case is rooted in the mass jailbreak of more than 30 Muslim Brotherhood leaders, including Morsi, from a prison northwest of Cairo during the 2011 popular uprising that toppled Morsi's predecessor, autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
Over recent months, a court in the Suez Canal city of Ismailia has heard testimonies from prison officials and intelligence officers indicating that Morsi and his Brotherhood colleagues were freed when gunmen led by Hamas operatives stormed the Wadi el-Natroun prison. At least 14 members of the security forces were killed and the jail's documents and archives destroyed.
Muslim Brotherhood officials have said they got out when local residents broke into the prison to free their relatives and that they had no knowledge ahead of time of the prison break.
Hamas has consistently denied any involvement. On Friday a spokesman for the militant group, Sami Abu Zuhri, condemned Morsi's detention order.
"The Egyptian decision is an attempt to drag Hamas into the Egyptian conflict," he said. "We call on the Arab League to bear its responsibility in confronting the incitement against Hamas."
Morsi's only account of his jailbreak came in a frantic phone call he made to Al-Jazeera Mubasher TV moments after being freed. "From the noises we heard ... It seemed to us there were (prisoners) attempting to get out of their cells and break out into the prison yard, and the prison authorities were trying to regain control and fired tear gas," Morsi said in the call.
By the time they got out, the prison was empty, and there was no sign of a major battle, he said.
Senior Brotherhood official Essam el-Erian rejected the detention order, saying Morsi continues to enjoy immunity as the nation's "legitimate" president, and he can stand trial only as part of a constitutional process that allows that.
The detention order, he wrote on his official Facebook page, "lays bare the fascist nature of military rule ... our response will be with millions in peaceful rallies in the squares."