Wounded supporters of deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi show bullet shells outside the Rabaa Adawiya mosque in Cairo, July 8, 2013. (Reuters/Suhaib Salem)
Zakaria Ibrahim was only several yards away when his younger brother was shot dead. It was just before dawn on July 8, and the two men were outside the Republican Guard headquarters in Cairo, along with hundreds of other supporters of deposed President Mohammed Morsi. They stood in neat rows as they observed early morning prayers, facing away from the phalanx of armed soldiers guarding the gates.
They were still praying when the chaos began. Zakaria remembers the tear gas first, repeated volleys of hissing canisters that filled the air with poisonous white clouds. Then came the crackle of machine-gun fire and shotguns. He ran from the army bullets, blinded and spluttering, unaware that his 24-year-old brother, Gamal, had been hit in the chest with a live round that exited through his back and left him dead on the street.
“I only found out he had been killed hours later, when someone who saw his name on the casualty list called me,” Zakaria says, holding back tears as he waits for his brother’s body in the courtyard of a squalid state morgue. The two brothers had come to Cairo from Beni Sueif, their hometown in southern Egypt, ten days earlier to take part in a sit-in at Rabaa al-Adeweya mosque to support Morsi in what would become the final days of his year-long presidency.
After the military deposed Morsi on July 3 following unprecedented protests against his rule, the Muslim Brotherhood and other allies have continued to hold demonstrations calling for his reinstatement, rejecting his ouster as a coup and refusing to recognize the new army-led transition. Meanwhile, security forces detained dozens of the groups members—including much of its leadership—and shut down its media outlets.
The crackdown culminated in the army assault on July 8, though how the violence began is a point of fierce contention.
Pro-Morsi demonstrators were holding vigil outside the Republican Guard building for three days, believing that Morsi was being held inside. They insist they did nothing to provoke the army’s assault.
The military says it came under attack from armed assailants who tried to storm the facility yet it provided no conclusive evidence to back up its claims. Its denial of wrongdoing and screening of videos recalled earlier press conferences during the first military-led transition in the aftermath of the killing of twenty-seven protesters in October 2011 and the killing of sixteen protesters the following month.
Regardless of how the incident started, it ended in a bloodbath. At least fifty-one Morsi supporters were killed, almost all hit by gunfire, and over 400 wounded, according to the Health Ministry, making it the single deadliest day of state violence since the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak. Dr. Kamal Nady, a doctor at a field hospital the morning of the attack, said most of the wounds were to the head and chest. “They were intending to kill,” he says.
The violence has damaged the political climate (which was already polarized) beyond repair—at least in the near term—and has alienated the Brotherhood even further, severely dimming the prospect of any kind of inclusive and consensual transitional process.
“I never expected the army could do this, but now my view of them has changed, there is blood between us,” says Zakaria. “I will bury my brother and return to the sit-in.”
Fifteen local human rights groups strongly condemned the “excessive use of force by army and security forces” in a joint statement. Security forces said one soldier and two policemen were also killed.
State television and anti-Brotherhood private channels faithfully parroted the army’s claims, repeatedly airing footage of Morsi’s supporters attacking the military, referring to them as terrorists, and neglecting to show scenes of the dozens of casualties.