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Explainer: What's happening in Egypt?

Hundreds of people have died and the country is in crisis as security forces clash with supporters of former president Mohammed Morsi.

(AP Photo/Hussein Tallal)

EGYPT’S CABINET IS meeting today to discuss the crisis in the country which has seen hundreds of people killed in clashes in recent days.

More than 600 people are believed to have died on Wednesday on the bloodiest day in the country’s history after security forces drove out Mohammed Morsi’s supporters from two sprawling encampments where they had been camped out for six weeks demanding the Islamist president’s reinstatement. The move, which also saw the arrest of several leaders of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, has left the fundamentalist movement isolated.

The group has called for daily demonstrations since security forces cleared the protest camps and declared a state of emergency.

The move also prompted Vice President Mohamed El-Baradei, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and pro-reform leader in the interim government, to resign in protest over the violent crackdown as the military-backed leadership imposed a month-long state of emergency and nighttime curfew.

Why now?

Security forces escort Muslim Brotherhood supporters out of the al-Fatah mosque and through angry crowds on Saturday. (AP Photo/Hussein Tallal)

The interim administration that took over after Morsi was toppled on 3  July has been warning for days that it planned to crackdown on the tent cities, which clogged intersections on opposite sides of the Egyptian capital. The government accused the protesters of frightening residents in the neighborhoods, sparking violence and disrupting traffic.

Military chief General Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who ousted Morsi, called for mass rallies last month to show support for action against the protesters. Millions turned up on 26 July to declare their support. The government later said diplomatic efforts had failed and the decision to clear the sit-ins was “irreversible.” Morsi’s supporters fortified their positions and even more people flooded the camps after plans for a crackdown on Monday morning were leaked to the media. Police announced they were postponing the decision but did not give a new date.

What led to this?

Two civilians holding guns on a street in the Zamalek neighbourhood of Cairo. (AP Photo/Manoocher Deghati)

Morsi was Egypt’s first democratically elected leader after winning the first post-Hosni Mubarak presidential election with just under 52 per cent of the vote. His rise to the helm of power was a sharp reversal for the Muslim Brotherhood, repressed for decades under Mubarak’s rule, and it was part of a general rise to power of Islamists following the Arab Spring wave of revolutions that led to the ousting of Mubarak and autocratic leaders in Tunisia and Libya.

But Morsi faced a backlash as liberal and secular activists accused him and the Brotherhood of trying to monopolise power and failing to implement much-needed social and economic reforms. Morsi and his backers argued they were doomed to fail because of constant protests and efforts to undermine his government. His government also drew criticism over a series of charges and complaints against activists, journalists and TV personalities, including well-known satirist Bassem Youssef, for insulting Morsi and even sometimes for insulting Islam.

An activist group called Tamarod, or Rebel in Arabic, drew millions to the streets to call for Morsi’s ousting on 30 June, the anniversary of his inauguration. The powerful military responded by taking Morsi into custody on 3 July and forming an interim civilian leadership.

What are the main sticking points blocking negotiations?

Women in Pakistan attend a rally in support of Mohammad Morsi in Islamabad today. (AP Photo/BK Bangash)

The Muslim Brotherhood, which rose to power and won a series of elections after Mubarak’s ousting, backs Morsi and had vowed to maintain the protest camps until he was reinstated. The Islamists have rejected the military-backed political process, which calls for amending the constitution adopted last year and holding parliamentary and presidential elections early next year. International diplomatic efforts to promote reconciliation, including phone calls and visits by senior US and European diplomats, have failed.

The interim administration and liberal and secular activists who led the drive to oust Morsi say the move against Egypt’s first democratically elected president was justified because he was abusing his power and the country needed a second chance at democracy. Authorities also have cracked down on Muslim Brotherhood leaders, detaining several key figures and accusing them of inciting violence.

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Has the violence generated any sympathy for Morsi’s supporters?

(AP Photo/Hassan Anmar)

Most Egyptians are Muslim, but there is widespread antipathy toward the Muslim Brotherhood among moderates who feared Morsi and his allies were trying to impose a stricter version of Islamic law in the country. Still, many object to the brutal crackdown and argue stability cannot be restored without participation of Islamists in the political process.

El-Baradei’s resignation was the first sign of a crack in the government’s position. The former head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency was named only last month as interim President Adly Mansour’s deputy for foreign relations. In his resignation letter, he wrote that he is not prepared to be held responsible for a “single drop of blood,” and lamented that Egypt is more polarised than when he took office, according to a copy that was emailed to The Associated Press.

What’s next?

Morsi supporters surround a coffin covered with Egyptian flags following the clashes on Wednesday. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

It’s hard to tell. Several more Brotherhood leaders, including the powerful Mohammed el-Beltagy and Essam el-Erian, were arrested after security forces swept away the two protest camps and the movement may struggle to regroup as pro-Morsi protesters from the camp were scattered. The government has declared a state of emergency and imposed a night-time curfew in a bid to stem the violence, but clashes have continued all week.

The BBC reports that interim Prime Minister Hazem Beblawi has put forward a proposal at today’s cabinet meeting to legally dissolve the Muslim Brotherhood.

Anger over Morsi’s ousting already has led to an increase in Islamic militant violence in the northern half of the Sinai Peninsula that borders Israel and the Gaza Strip, and growing anger over the crackdown and deaths of scores of civilians could be exploited by extremists to stoke low-level violence there and elsewhere in the country.

- Additional reporting by Christine Bohan

Read: Four Irish citizens being held at Cairo prison >

Photos: More than 60 killed in violent clashes on Egypt’s ‘Friday of anger’ >

Read: Irish citizens told to avoid all non-essential travel to Egypt as violence escalates >

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