CAIRO // Egypt's prosecutor general has ordered the arrest of members of the shadowy "Black Bloc" group of militants who have appeared among protesters in recent clashes with police.
Prosecutor General Talaat Ibrahim Abdallah has authorised the arrest "of all people suspected of belonging to the group and ordered that they be brought before the courts", the source said on Tuesday.
The group has become an unpredictable new element in Egypt's wave of political unrest. The young men present themselves as the defenders of protesters opposed to President Mohammed Morsi.
"Inquiries have shown that the Black Bloc is an organised group which carries out terrorist actions," said the prosecutor general's spokesman Hassan Yassine.
The prosecutor urged "citizens to arrest anyone suspected of membership in this group and hand them over" to the army or the police, said Mr Yassine.
Bloc members boast that they're willing to use force to fight back against Islamists who have attacked protesters in the past - or against police who crack down on demonstrations. The youths with faces hidden under black masks have appeared among stone-throwing protesters in clashes with police around Egypt the past five days in the wave of political violence that has shaken the country.
During protests in Cairo on Monday, masked youths celebrated around a police armoured vehicle in flames in the middle of Tahrir Square.
Their emergence has raised concerns even among fellow members of the opposition, who fear the group could spark Islamist retaliation or that it could be infiltrated to taint their movement. Islamist supporters of Mr Morsi call the bloc a militia and have used it to depict the opposition as a violent force wrecking the nation.
Moreover, some Islamists have threatened to form vigilante groups in response, creating the potential for a spiral of violence between rival "militias".
The bloc's appearance comes amid increasing opposition frustration with Mr Morsi, Egypt's first freely elected president, and the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists who critics say have imposed a monopoly on power.
The anger has fuelled the explosion of violence that at first centred on Friday's second anniversary of the start of the uprising that ousted autocrat Hosni Mubarak. It accelerated with riots in the Suez Canal city of Port Said by youths furious over death sentences issued by a court against local football fans over a bloody stadium riot a year ago. Mr Morsi has struggled to regain control, calling a state of emergency in three Suez Canal-area provinces.
The Black Bloc models itself after anarchist groups by the same name in Europe and the United States that have participated in antiglobalisation and other protests the past decade.
In Egypt, the group's secrecy and self-professed dispersed structure make it difficult to determine its actual scope. It communicates mainly by social media. Its members' identities are unknown and faces unseen, so it's impossible to confirm the authenticity of those who claim to speak in its name.
It is even impossible to know whether every masked young man in the streets belongs to the bloc or is just a protester hiding his face - or if the distinction even matters. In Tahrir on Monday, vendors were selling black masks that young men crowded to buy.
"We are the Black Bloc ... seeking people's liberation, the fall of corruption and the toppling of the tyrant," proclaimed a video announcing the group's formation, posted online Thursday. It showed youths dressed in black marching in lines in Alexandria.
"We have arisen to confront the fascist tyrant regime of the Muslim Brotherhood with its military wing," the video said, warning police not to interfere "or else we will respond without hesitation".
Brotherhood officials, Islamist politicians and pro-government media accuse the group of violence ranging from trying to set fire to the presidential palace and attacking Brotherhood offices to ransacking state buildings, blocking train tracks and even exchanging gunfire with riot police.
The mayhem of the past five days has seen such incidents - but it is unclear what role Black Bloc members have had, or whether claims the group is armed are true. Security officials say they arrested one suspected bloc member carrying ammunition in Cairo on Sunday.
The state-run Al-Ahram newspaper, which has depicted the group as fuelling violence, said that Black Bloc members tried to break into a five-star hotel near Tahrir, and fired guns in the air when other protesters tried to stop them.
A university graduate, Sherif El Sherafi, said he was a founder of the group in an interview with the El Watan newspaper.
He said the bloc has 10,000 members nationwide, organised into groups of around 20 each, but with no chain of command. Members are trained in self-defence and how to deal with tear gas.
"Violence is not an action but a reaction," he said. He depicted the situation as an inevitable clash between the opposition and government. "What is coming is worse."
Members say the group was created in response to December 4 clashes, when Brotherhood supporters attacked a protest sit-in outside the presidential palace, touching off hours of street battles that left at least 10 dead and hundreds injured.
Many in the opposition saw that incident as a turning point, a sign that Islamists and the Brotherhood were willing to use violence against Mr Morsi's critics.
On Monday night, a number of protesters praised the masked men in Tahrir Square.
"They aren't here for sabotage or vandalism, but to protect us from Brotherhood militias," said Ahmed Ali, an engineer.
Mr Ali said police are now "suppressing the revolution on behalf of the murderer Morsi ... So we need these men to defend the revolution".
Hossam Al Hamalawy, a prominent leftist activist, said the Black Bloc youth are "sincere, they want change and they have seen their friends get killed ... (So) they have decided to take the matter into their own hands".
But he said it "could be dangerous for the revolution", warning that "this could develop to people carrying arms" ostensibly in response to the Black Bloc.
"Those who topple the regime are the masses," not underground groups, said Mr Al Hamalawy, of the Socialist Revolutionaries, a key group behind the anti-Mubarak uprising.
Mr Morsi's office and the Brotherhood have contended for months that the opposition is using the streets to overturn results of elections that Islamists have consistently won.
Now they point to the Black Bloc as proof their opponents are willing to back violence.
On his Facebook page, Mr Morsi's assistant for foreign affairs Essam El Haddad accused the Black Bloc of "systematic violence and organised crimes across the country" and accused the opposition of condoning it.
Mr Morsi's more hardline Islamist allies have been more vehement.
The Black Bloc "must be liquidated completely. These groups must be dealt with violence and all force," said Mohammed Abu Samra, the head of the political party of Islamic Jihad, which once waged a campaign of militant violence in Egypt.