Scores of people were killed and dozens more wounded Saturday in the worst violence in recent Egyptian history as police opened fire on supporters of deposed President Mohammed Morsi.
Morsi supporters and the government offered widely different counts of the dead. The Muslim Brotherhood, the secret organization through which Morsi ascended to the presidency, claimed as many as 200 were dead, while the Ministry of Interior announced implausibly that police never fired a live round at the protesters, despite all evidence to the contrary. Health ministry officials revised the death toll throughout the day, with it hitting 80 by early Sunday. At least 792 people were injured, the ministry said.
A brief visit to a field hospital – one of three treating casualties – showed the brutality of what had taken place. A McClatchy reporter counted 27 dead laid out on the hospital’s floor, and as she left, three more bodies arrived, adding to a frantic and horrific scene. At least three of the dead had been shot in the head, and the gaping wounds left the victims’ brains exposed.
Over and over, hospital workers would move a body to the ground and search the pockets for an identification card. When they found one, they wrote the deceased’s name on an arm. They then tied the body’s hands and toes together, to prevent arms and legs from flopping around as the corpse was moved. Often the workers had put a white wrap around the head to cover the gunshot wounds. Piles of national identification cards and personal belongings, like bloodied shirts and pants, were piled up nearby.
The only movement was that of doctors who seemed to jump around the corpses, reaching for bandages and the plaster needed to prepare shrouds, where the deceased’s name would be written again. One man who’d been assigned to clean blood from the floor shuffled through the scene, armed with a mop and a bucket that appeared to hold more blood than water. Over and over he went over the same spot near one head, as the blood kept pouring out.
Doctors said the injuries could only have come from professional marksmen. Ebtesan Zain, a gynecologist, said she came to help her fellow doctors only to discover she was not needed – everyone she encountered was dead.
“Those injuries had to be done by snipers. It couldn’t be anything else,” Zain said. “They were shooting directly in the head between the eyes and in the chest.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in a statement said he had spoken with Egyptian Vice-President Mohamed ElBaradei, and expressed “our deep concern about the bloodshed and violence.” The statement did not blame the military for the violence – the Obama administration has declined to call Morsi’s ouster a coup – but it said “Egyptian authorities have a moral and legal obligation to respect the right of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression,” a reference to officials’ calls for an end to the pro-Morsi sit-in that has filled the streets of the Rabaa district for the past month.
“It is essential that the security forces and the interim government respect the right of peaceful protest, including the ongoing sit-in demonstrations,” the statement said.
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel expressed similar sentiments in a call with Egypt’s current strongman, Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, according to a tweet by Pentagon spokesman George Little.
The latest clashes were spurred by el-Sissi’s call last week for Egyptians to rally in support of the military Friday so that it would have a “mandate” to combat “violence and terrorism,” which government officials recently have obliquely equated with Morsi supporters.
Millions heeded el-Sissi’s call in celebratory rallies, carrying el-Sissi’s picture. Late Friday, the military issued a statement, thanking demonstrators for their support.
The violence came just a few hours later, in the middle of the night and continuing for hours, when many here were already expecting the military to attempt to clear pro-Morsi demonstrators from the sit-in, which they’ve been holding since June 28.
Just how the violence began is uncertain. The official version from the minister of the Interior, Mohammed Ibrahim, who oversees the country’s security services, said pro-Morsi protesters were headed toward pro military supporters and that the military simply wanted to stop them from reaching the 6th of October bridge, a key thoroughfare near Cairo’s iconic Tahrir Square. The official account said security forces fired tear gas to deter the pro-Morsi crowd and that 14 policemen were injured when the demonstrators retaliated.
Morsi supporters rejected that account.
"First of all, the march was heading to Abassya and there were no pro-military protesters there," said Adham Hassanien, 31, a journalist who works in a media center set up by Morsi supporters, referring to an area in Cairo where the Ministry of Defense is located.
He also discounted that Morsi supporters had attacked the security forces in any way, noting that the Rabaa protest had been going on for nearly a month. "Why would we attack them now? We are the ones who are losing people," he said.
To be sure, many Morsi supporters were armed. And in the past month, on a stage at the site, sheikhs have repeatedly told Morsi supporters that to die for his reinstatement is an honorable, Islamic form of martyrdom.
But the number of deaths and the severity of the wounds suggested that if there had been any resistance on the part of the Morsi supporters, it was easily overwhelmed.
What the repercussions will be of the violence are unclear. Security forces killed more than 50 pro-Morsi demonstrators outside the headquarters of the country’s elite Republican Guard July 8 with barely an outcry from either Egyptians or the international community. The government said then that protesters had tried to storm the Republican Guard headquarters, where some believe Morsi was being held, but witnesses in two apartment buildings overlooking the scene told McClatchy they believed the government fired first.
Egypt’s general-prosecutor, Hisham Barakat, said he had ordered an investigation into Saturday’s events, and the powerful al Azhar Mosque called for “the criminal responsible” to be punished. But with the majority here clearly supporting the crackdown on the Brotherhood, as the turnout on Friday showed, an aggressive probe seemed unlikely.
State television, which had trumpeted Friday’s demonstrations and cancelled its usual fare of soap operas to encourage the turnout, made little mention of Saturday’s violence and resumed its regular programming.
At a news conference Saturday, Interior Minister Ibrahim showed little regret, saying Morsi supporters would be dealt with, “God willing.”
Ibrahim said he planned to reinstate departments to combat extremism and monitor political and religious activities that had been eliminated during Morsi’s time in office. Those offices had been used primarily to target the Brotherhood.
Since Morsi’s July 3 ouster by the military, at least 200 people and troops have been killed, largely Morsi supporters and Islamists who reject an Egypt again governed by the military. The latest clashes likely bolster the Brotherhood’s case that the military was taking Egypt back to a totalitarian state, but many Egyptians are so relieved Morsi is no longer in power, they consider that the better option.
Morsi has been held in an undisclosed location since el-Sissi announced that he was no longer president. On Friday, a judge announced that the deposed president would be held for 15 more days as officials investigate him for murder and espionage for allegedly conspiring with the Palestinian group Hamas to orchestrate his 2011 prison break, the first time the government had offered a legal justification for his detention.
On Saturday, Ibrahim said it was “likely” Morsi would be moved to the same prison as former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who resigned two years ago after massive public demonstrations demanded he step down, and the military signaled he too had lost the public’s support.
Except for Morsi’s 368 days as president, a current or former military officer has ruled Egypt for the past six decades.