October 9 is a day that will not soon be forgotten in Egypt. Chaos and bloodshed engulfed the streets of Cairo in some of the worst violence the country has seen since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak eight months ago.
The day began with a peaceful march of 10,000 people, the majority of them Coptic Christians, who took to the streets to condemn the recent attack on a church in southern Egypt. A similar protest five days earlier had been violently dispersed by military police. The march began at around 4 pm in the predominantly Christian district of Shubra and headed towards the state television and radio building, known as Maspero, in downtown Cairo. Approximately two hours into the march, the demonstrators came under attack when men in civilian clothes pelted them with stones from surrounding streets and a nearby bridge. The attack eventually subsided and the marchers continued towards Maspero where a few thousand people had gathered to await their arrival.
Many in the crowd of men, women and children were holding lit candles aloft while others chanted. A group of Coptic priests, in traditional long black robes, stood in the midst of the crowd as people kissed their hands in respect. Traffic crawled along the Corniche El Nile, the main thoroughfare between the large state TV building and the Nile.
As the protesters gathered, a massive security presence had amassed around them. Armored personnel carriers (APCs) lined the far side of the street and hundreds of military police, clad in army fatigues and black helmets and wielding large wooden sticks and shields, stood on a median pavement in the center of the road facing the crowd. Dusk settled and the excitement began to build as the marchers were said to be approaching along the corniche.
It took only a few seconds for the peaceful scene to be transformed into one of violence and mayhem.
A line of military police crossed the street and formed a cordon directly in front of the protesters, holding them back as traffic inched by. The crowd suddenly swelled, pushing the military police back. Several protesters continued moving forward, forcing the soldiers to retreat past the median and across the street to where the APCs were stationed. One protester threw a rock that hit the side of an army vehicle.
Then the military attacked.
A line of military police rushed the crowd, swinging long wooden sticks and beating people. The sound of gunfire erupted in the air. People began to flee in all directions. Several fell over and were trampled in the stampede. The shooting continued as hundreds ran into a street behind the Hilton Ramses.
On the corniche in front of the hotel, APCs began driving at high speed through crowds of protesters. “An APC mounted the island in the middle of the road, like a maddened animal on a rampage,” writes journalist Sarah Carr in Al Masry Al Youm English Edition. “I saw a group of people disappear, sucked underneath it. It drove over them.”
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Protesters retaliated by setting police vehicles on fire. Young men on motorcycles, riding two at a time, rushed into the melee to collect the wounded and bring them out. The sound of wailing filled the air. Many wounded, unconscious and wrapped in blankets, were carried through the streets. One man who appeared to have been shot in the stomach, his shirt soaked through with blood, was carried into an ambulance that had arrived at the scene.
In the middle of the chaos, a lone policeman in a black uniform, apparently stranded, ran through the crowd, desperately trying to reach the military forces at the other end of the street. A protester with blood streaming down his face grabbed a thick wooden plank and began to chase after him, but he was held back by other demonstrators.
Running battles ensued between thousands of enraged protesters and military, police and plainclothes thugs, each side temporarily gaining the advantage. Security forces resorted to tear gas, firing canisters in high arcs that landed in the midst of the crowds, forcing people to run back, coughing and spitting with tears streaming down their face.
In a building nearby, security forces stormed into the studios of independent television stations TV 25 and Al Hurra TV and cut their live feeds as they were reporting on what was happening in the streets below. A videographer taping near Maspero was surrounded by several soldiers and forced to hand over his memory card, which was then tossed into the river.
In the meantime, state TV and radio were reporting that “the Christians” had attacked the army first and killed three soldiers, a claim they were forced to retract the next day. It also broadcast interviews with soldiers lying on stretchers describing how they had been attacked. State TV anchors, repeatedly using sectarian language, called on “honorable civilians” to come to Maspero to protect the military from “the Copts.”
The fighting continued as men wielding clubs and sticks raced toward the area, chanting Islamist slogans and vowing to stand with the military.
Many of the dead and wounded were taken to the nearby Coptic hospital. Eyewitnesses described horrific scenes of corpses with flattened faces and missing limbs lying on the floor of the morgue. A hospital medic later said that all of those killed had either been run over or shot. The hospital itself came under attack by a mob of thugs who threw Molotov cocktails and burned cars.
The violence continued around the streets of downtown until early Monday morning. All told, at least twenty-five people were killed and more than 300 wounded—a bloodbath in the streets of Cairo.
The scene at the Coptic hospital the following afternoon was harrowing. Families and friends of the victims crowded into an open-air courtyard at the hospital morgue. Some sat stone-faced, staring into empty space. Others wept uncontrollably, pulling at their hair. Sixteen coffins were laid out on the courtyard floor and in an adjacent room. They had been decorated with white flowers and crucifixes. Some families had taped on photographs of their lost relatives—haunting images of the dead staring out from their caskets in large, colorful studio shots.
The coffins remained empty as families and lawyers worked to get autopsies that would officially record the cause of death. There was shouting and confusion as people argued about the right course of action. The air hung heavy with sorrow.
People loudly criticized the media for its coverage of the attack, aghast that they had been portrayed as having instigating the violence.
Outside the hospital gates, a large crowd rallied and chanted against the military council and Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, Egypt’s interim leader. A march of thousands from the nearby Coptic cathedral joined them as the sun was setting. Chants for Tantawi to step down and of “Muslim, Christian, one hand” echoed in the street.
The Supreme Council of Armed Forces, headed by Tantawi, announced it would form a fact-finding committee to investigate the violence. Many asked how the military could honestly investigate itself, especially in a situation where army officers were directly implicated in the killing of civilians for the first time.
Night fell and the bodies of several of those slain were finally being prepared to be taken to the Coptic cathedral for a funeral service. Meanwhile, the streets of Cairo remained noticeably emptier and quieter than the usual Monday bustle. It appeared many Egyptians had stayed home out of fear.
This piece was first published by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.