CAIRO (AP) — One hardline Muslim cleric on an Egyptian TV station justified sexual assaults on women protesters. Others issued religious edicts saying opposition leaders must be killed. Television screeds by ultraconservative sheiks are raising fears of assassinations here a day after a top anti-Islamist politician was gunned down in Tunisia.
Egyptian security officials on Thursday beefed up security around the homes of Egypt's main opposition politicians, citing the possibility of a Tunisia-type killing after the edicts, or fatwas. The office of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi and his prime minister denounced the edicts and the top prosecutor began an investigation into one of the clerics.
Two well-known ultraconservative clerics sparked an uproar with their edicts several days ago saying Shariah, or Islamic law, required the killing of opposition figures. A third fanned the flames by justifying a string of mob sexual assaults on women protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square.
"They are going there to get raped," cleric Ahmed Mohammed Abdullah said, depicting them as loose women. He spoke of their curly hair, saying "these are devils named women ... They speak with no femininity, no morals, no fear ... Learn from Muslim women, be Muslims."
On his TV show on the private Al-Umma station Wednesday, Abdullah, also known as Abu Islam, derided opposition statements that attacking women was "a red line" that must not be crossed.
"Does that apply to these naked women?" he said. "Nine out of 10 of them are Crusaders (Christians) and the rest are ... widows with no one to rein them in" to ensure they remain modest.
Sexual assaults on women protesters have spiked in Egypt's wave of unrest since late January, with at least 19 reported on Jan. 25 alone. In many cases, mobs stripped women, penetrating them with knives and other objects, according to rights groups.
The TV screeds by the clerics reflect the fury with which some ultraconservatives have reacted to nationwide protests against Morsi, which turned into deadly clashes as police cracked down on the demonstrators.
Aides to Morsi and Muslim Brotherhood officials have depicted the protesters as thugs and criminals and have accused opposition politicians of condoning or even fueling violence in an attempt to undermine Morsi.
The hardline clerics took up that same rhetoric, but went further and declared that protesters and opposition leaders must face punishments under Islamic law for those who cause chaos or try to overthrow the ruler, including death, crucifixion or amputations of limbs.
Their edicts took on a new light after Tunisian opposition leader Chokri Belaid, a sharp secular critic of that country's Islamist-led government, was gunned down outside his home Wednesday.
Belaid's assassination "sounds danger alarms from Tunisia to Cairo, and warns of the cancerous growth of terrorist groups cloaked by religion and carrying out a plot to liquidate the opposition morally and physically," Egypt's main opposition coalition, the National Salvation Front, said in a statement.
A day earlier, the Front's leader Mohamed ElBaradei denounced what he called the government's silence "as another fatwa gives license to kill opposition in the name of Islam."
On Thursday, Morsi's office said in a statement that it "stresses its full rejection of hate speech cloaked by religion" and called on all national, religious and intellectual leaders "to stand as one line against unacceptable inciteful language."
Prime Minister Hesham Kandil warned that such edicts could lead to "sedition and disturbance" and said they "are not related to Islam."
Interior Ministry spokesman Gen. Hani Abdel Latif said security authorities will increase patrols in residential areas where opposition leaders live in. He told the website of the state Al-Ahram newspaper that security officials have "put into consideration" the assassination of the Tunisia's Belaid.
A security official said ElBaradei's home and several other leaders' homes will be put under observation for their protection. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.
Egyptians saw a series of assassinations of top statesmen and writers after religious edicts were issued against them back in 1990s during a bloody Islamic extremist insurgency.
Islamists have accused the opposition of trying to now overthrow Morsi, the country's first freely elected president, by stirring up violence in the streets. Protests against Morsi turned to clashes in many places, and demonstrators have cut off roads and held strikes outside government buildings. Dozens were killed in police crackdowns on protesters. Last Friday, protests outside Morsi's presidential palace turned into riots as police rained tear gas and fired birdshots at demonstrators throwing stones and firebombs, and then set fire to protesters' tents.
In further unrest, workers striking over a contract dispute shut down Egypt's key Red Sea port of Ain Sukhna for a seventh day, leading four ships to cancel plans to dock there on Thursday, state news agency MENA reported.
During a recent talk show on the popular Salafi TV channel, Al-Hafez, cleric Mahmoud Shaaban said the leaders of the National Salvation Front are "setting Egypt on fire to gain power."
"The verdict against them under God's law is death," he said.
He mentioned ElBaradei and another Front leader, Hamdeen Sabahi, saying "they have repeatedly spoken about toppling Morsi." Later in the program, he clarified that the government should carry out the verdict, not private citizens.
Separately, another hardline cleric Wagdi Ghoneim issued a video statement pleading with Morsi to crack down heavily on those outside his palace. "The verdict under Shariah for those who seek corruption on earth is to be fought, or crucified, or have their arms or legs cut off or be exiled from earth," he said.
"Strike with an iron fist. Otherwise, the country will be lost at your hand and they'll say it is your fault. They'll say Islam doesn't know how to rule and that it's the Islamists who wrecked the country," he said. He said that if Morsi's government doesn't act, private citizens will.
"We will kill the criminals, the thugs, the thieves and those who give them money and those who help them with words. No mercy with them," Ghoneim shouted.
Top prosecutor Talaat Ibrahim on Thursday ordered an investigation into Shaaban for his fatwa.
In another development, one of deposed leader Hosni Mubarak's most trusted men has been released from prison pending further investigation into corruption charges, according to a security official.
Safwat el-Sherif, the country's former parliament speaker, has walked out of Torah prison in southern Cairo district, late Thursday, the official says. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.
El-Sherif, who served also as information minister for two decades and headed the former ruling National Democratic Party, spent nearly 18 months in prison. He was one of Mubarak's strongmen.
El-Sherif is among a long list of other former Mubarak associates — businessmen, ministers and others — who were tried and face trial over alleged corruption.
Popular complaints of endemic graft in government circles were behind 2011 uprising that toppled Mubarak.