Doctors treat a supporter of Egypt’s ousted President Mohammed Morsi injured during clashes with security forces at Nasr City in Cairo, Egypt, Saturday, July 27, 2013. (AP Photo/Manu Brabo)
The corpses emerge from a field hospital near the Rabea al-Adeweya mosque every few minutes in a grim routine. First, a man on a megaphone strides purposefully out into the sun, announcing the name of the dead to the waiting throng of mourners—the Grand Marshal of a macabre parade. Behind him come the medical workers carrying the body on a fluorescent orange stretcher. The white shroud is invariably splattered with blood, the name and hometown of the deceased is scrawled across the front. Hands and feet have been tied together to prevent limbs from flopping out. Two lines of men with linked arms form a thin passageway through the crowd that leads to a waiting ambulance. Pleas to God fill the air, rising to a crescendo of grief and anger as the body passes through. The commotion subsides until the next body is brought out, and the scene repeated.
This was Cairo on a scorching Saturday morning after predawn clashes between supporters of deposed president Mohammed Morsi and police and armed men that left scores of protesters dead and hundreds injured in the deadliest attack by security services since Mubarak’s ouster. The Health Ministry puts the official toll at seventy-four. The Muslim Brotherhood says sixty-six were killed and an additional sixty-one are “clinically dead.”
The bloodshed plunged Egypt into a deepening crisis with a highly polarized population, an unresolved standoff between the army and the Muslim Brotherhood, spiraling levels of violence that have left more than 200 people dead since Morsi’s ouster and a coercive security apparatus reconstituting itself under the guise of a “war on terror.”
The clashes began late Friday evening after hundreds of Morsi’s supporters began a march from the outskirts of a mass sit-in in Nasr City, a neighborhood in eastern Cairo where they have maintained a month-long vigil. Accounts differ as to how the violence began. In a televised press conference, Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim—whom Morsi appointed—said security forces fired tear gas to stop the ousted president’s supporters from blocking the October 6 bridge, a major artery that runs through the capital, and claimed police officers sustained injuries from live fire and birdshot. He absolved his men of any responsibility and insisted, “We never, as police, pointed any firearms at the chest of any demonstrator.”
The protesters, many of them wounded, tell a different story. Several claimed in interviews that they did little to provoke the security forces, who began firing tear gas canisters as the crowd approached, and that they responded by hurling back rocks at police. After around two hours of skirmishes, the police and other armed men opened fire on the crowds with live ammunition and shotguns, the protesters say.
“I was shocked by the level of violence,” says Ali Sabry, a 32-year-old Morsi supporter from Benha, a Nile Delta city north of Cairo. His clothes are covered in dirt and blood. “Lots of my colleagues died in front of me. I carried at least three or four martyrs, all of them were shot, one was hit in the throat, another in the forehead.”
Fearing an all out raid on the sit-in, Morsi supporters built brick walls on the street to prevent security forces from entering. The battle raged for hours along Nasr Street, a wide thoroughfare that runs in front of the military viewing stand where President Sadat was assassinated in 1981.
Doctors at the field hospital say they were overwhelmed by the number of casualties that flooded in as the clashes intensified through the early morning. Dr. Mostafa Talaat, a volunteer medic, said most of the gunshot wounds he tended to were in the head, neck and chest. “They were shooting to kill and it seems they used snipers because many of the gunshot wounds had a downward trajectory,” indicating they were shot from above, he said.