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.
The clashes came after a day of dueling rallies on Friday across the country for and against the ousted president in response to a televised speech on June 24 by the head of the army. Sporting dark sunglasses and full military regalia, Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi called on Egyptians to rally across the country to give him a popular mandate to confront “violence and terrorism,” widely seen as a reference to Morsi’s supporters.
“Al-Sisi’s speech gave him popular cover to do what he wants to us, to attack us with impunity” says Ziyad Sherif, a 19-year-old Morsi supporter who was shot in the neck with birdshot in the police clashes. “How can the head of the army ask one section of society to mandate him to kill the other?”
Sisi’s address was viewed as a prelude to a harsher crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and the forcible breakup of their mass sit-ins in Giza and Nasr City. The group has already seen its leaders imprisoned and charged, assets frozen, sympathetic TV stations shut down and protesters killed by the dozen.
Over the past four weeks, Morsi supporters have committed violence of their own. Armed pro-Morsi demonstrators have clashed with local residents across the country resulting in numerous deaths and injuries and leaving neighborhoods seething with rage. There have also been accounts of torture and abuse of “infiltrators” at pro-Morsi sit-ins. Meanwhile, militants in the Sinai Peninsula have carried out daily attacks against security forces, killing at least twenty policemen and soldiers.
Meanwhile, sympathy from those who vocally opposed police brutality in the past has been tempered by the fact that the Brotherhood ignored rampant police torture and killing of protesters while they were in power—either in the presidency or parliament—choosing instead to promote officers and label demonstrators opposing Morsi’s rule as thugs and criminals.
State media and private television channels and newspapers have helped whip up growing anti–Muslim Brotherhood sentiment, demonizing Morsi’s supporters as terrorists hellbent on violence, diseased with scabies and infiltrated by Palestinians and Syrians, stoking xenophobia.
On Friday, several major television stations cancelled regularly scheduled drama series and entertainment shows that follow Iftar—the sunset meal breaking the fast in Ramadan—and are a staple in Egyptian society, to cover the pro-military rallies and encourage people to join in. Tamarod, the petition gathering campaign that helped orchestrate Morsi’s overthrow, backed the army’s call, as did the National Salvation Front, a loose coalition of non-Islamist political groups. Yet some critics of Morsi and the Brotherhood did reject the pro-military rallies—such as the April 6 Youth Movement and several prominent revolutionary activists—though they were a minority.
In Cairo, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators poured into Tahrir square and surrounded the presidential palace, to heed al-Sisi’s call in a display of nationalism and army worship that has gripped much of the country. “I am here to mandate the army to confront terrorism,” says Mohamed Rabia, a 26-year-old demonstrator in Tahrir. “The Muslim Brotherhood are terrorists. The only solution is for the army to arrest their entire leadership and break up their sit-ins.”
Meanwhile, the military made its presence felt, deploying soldiers and armor. Apache helicopters swooped low over the cheering crowds. Demonstrators posed for photographs next to smiling soldiers. Even police officers, long the arch enemy of protesters in Tahrir who launched the 2011 revolution on National Police Day to address police brutality, strolled amiably through the square. Al-Sisi’s face was omnipresent on the streets. Vendors hawked posters, T-shirts and buttons bearing pictures of the army chief, sometimes depicted alongside former president Gamal Abdel Nasser.
“The army will never betray the country,” says Adel Salah al-Din, a 42-year-old military supporter. “They never have, if they did we would be like Syria.”
The pro-Morsi rally was only several miles was across town, but the two scenes were worlds apart. The Muslim Brotherhood had dubbed it the “Friday to bring down the coup” and organized thirty-four marches in Cairo alone in defiance of al-Sisi’s speech. The largest rally was at the Rabea al-Adeweya mosque, where demonstrators waved pictures of Morsi and chanted against the military, whistling in derision at helicopters flying overhead. Three bearded men on a moped wound their way through the crowd. “Terrorists coming through, make way for the terrorists,” the driver joked with a smile.
“Al-Sisi doesn’t represent me. He is the leader of the army, I am a civilian. He should take off his uniform if he wants to play politics,” says Ahmed Qassem, a 32 year-old dentist who makes the journey to Cairo every weekend from his hometown in the southern city of Minya to show his support for the ousted president. “If we are terrorists then all Egyptians are terrorists. We are not leaving until Morsi returns.”
The prospect of Morsi being reinstated has grown increasingly far fetched. The deposed president has been held incommunicado by the military since July 3. According to a report in the Associated Press, military intelligence agents have questioned him at least once a day, sometimes for up to five hours, focusing on the inner workings of his presidency and of the Brotherhood. On Friday, civilian prosecutors announced they had launched an investigation into Morsi on charges of murder and conspiring with the Palestinian group Hamas, marking the first formal legal measures leveled against him. Prosecutors ordered him detained for fifteen days pending investigation and the interior ministry said he would be transferred to Torah Prison, where Mubarak is being held.
“We know it is very hard for the president to come back,” says Yehiya Mohammed, a 28-year-old Morsi supporter from Zagazig, a city in the eastern Nile Delta. “But we have no other options. Our sit-in is the only way forward. We need patience.”
The potential for further bloodshed remains high. Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim has warned Morsi’s supporters that they will soon be dispersed from their largest sit-ins where thousands have lived for weeks. Ibrahim also said he was reinstating a state security agency that under the Mubarak regime was responsible for monitoring religious and political activities and was known for carrying out torture and forced disappearances. “The untechnical restructuring of the Interior Ministry after the revolution, and the abolition of certain departments, are the reasons for the extremist activities that we see now,” Ibrahim said. Critics view the move as part of a broader effort by the old security apparatus to reconstitute itself and tighten its grip once again, this time with public support.
The deepening crisis has dismayed many of the revolutionaries who struggled to overcome successive authoritarian regimes—Mubarak’s government, the direct rule of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces and the Brotherhood—only to see the military and old security apparatus rise again, perhaps entrenching themselves even deeper into Egyptian life.
As hundreds of thousands took to the streets of Cairo on Friday in the competing rallies, there was another, much smaller protest on the opposite bank of the Nile at Sphinx square. Several dozen men and women gathered in the afternoon to voice their opposition to the both the military and the Brotherhood, billing their rally as the “Third Square.”
“I’m not sure what the solution is but I know we can’t return to the way the Brotherhood were ruling and we can’t go back to military rule either,” says Shaimaa Said, a 33-year-old Cairo resident. She hold up a poster with the faces of both Morsi and al-Sisi crossed out and the caption underneath them: ‘Down with religious fascism. Down with military fascism.’
Beside her stands 29-year-old Hanan Abdel Gazar. “We want to continue the January 25 revolution. First the Brotherhood stole it from us so we protested them on June 30. Now the army is stealing it.”
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