Egypt’s security forces stormed camps of protesters loyal to ousted President Mohammed Morsi on Wednesday in a wave of gunfire and tear gas that set off fighting throughout the country. At least 278 people were dead and more than 2,200 injured on the deadliest day since the 2011 uprising.
By evening, bulldozers had move into the camps. The main site, a virtual city that had housed thousands in the Rabaa section of Cairo, was set afire. Much of the country was under a curfew and a state of emergency.
“Rabaa is ashes,” said Jihad Khalid, 20, a protester who’d lost friends and was at the Rabaa field hospital when police arrived. “The police were letting women leave and arresting men. And then a police officer told me, ‘Leave,’ and I said, ‘I am not leaving.’ He said, ‘You know I can kill you right now.’ ”
The clashes threw the country once again into a state of upheaval.
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Nobel laureate and liberal Mohamed ElBaradei, who’d served as the vice president of foreign affairs, resigned from the military-named government, saying he opposed the crackdown on Morsi supporters.
“I cannot be responsible for one drop of blood,” ElBaradei said in a statement, adding that he thought the government had other means to clear the sites, where Morsi supporters had conducted sit-ins for six weeks.
The government defended its actions, claiming that its forces had been attacked and that they’d used only tear gas and not live ammunition. Mohammed Ibrahim, the minister of interior, said the “least amount of force” had been used. He banned future sit-ins.
“This state of mayhem and insecurity has come to an end,” said Prime Minister Hazem el Beblawi, who praised police for what he called their restraint.
Health Ministry officials said 235 people had been killed, plus at least 43 police officers, and more than 2,200 people had been injured.
The moves were widely criticized in the Middle East, Europe and the United States.
"The United States strongly condemns the use of violence against protesters in Egypt," Principal Deputy White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Wednesday from Martha’s Vineyard, where President Barack Obama was vacationing.
"We extend our condolences to the families of those who have been killed, and to the injured. We have repeatedly called on the Egyptian military and security forces to show restraint, and for the government to respect the universal rights of its citizens, just as we have urged protesters to demonstrate peacefully."
The government effort to clear the sites, which pitted armed forces against citizens often armed only with rocks, produced widespread carnage. Near the site of the larger sit-in, in Rabaa, it was impossible to walk a few feet without seeing an injured man, hearing the wails of a grieving woman or smelling the punctuating stench of tear gas.
There were conflicting reports that the daughter of Muslim Brotherhood supreme leader Khairat el Shater and her husband had been killed in Rabaa.
The leader of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, Mohamed El Beltagy, confirmed that his daughter Asmaa, 17, was among those killed. Egyptian state television later reported that Beltagy was one of eight Muslim Brotherhood leaders who’d been arrested Wednesday, though Interior Minister Ibrahim denied that. The government already had arrested Shater.
Among those killed at Rabaa were at least two journalists, including Sky News cameraman Mick Deane, 61, a 15-year veteran of the British station. Several other journalists were arrested or threatened when they tried to cover the events.
In Rabaa, protesters had positioned cars as barricades. About 6 a.m., witnesses said, military and police vehicles began surrounding the site, which comprised several blocks of numbered tents, bathrooms and kitchens for the thousands living there. Around 7 a.m., the forces threw tear gas into the crowds, said Mohammed el Nagger, 64, a carpenter who’s been at the site since June 28. Residents started to run out of the tents, el Nagger said.
“Once the people went out into the open, they started shooting,” said el Nagger, who was struck in the ankle.
His son, Kamel, 35, described a horrific scene of people trying to help one another, his bandaged hand shaking as he recalled the incident.
“In front of my eyes I saw someone shot. Another man went to help him and he was shot, too. They were lying on top of each other,” he said. “We cannot even move the dead outside.”
Ambulance workers told McClatchy they didn’t have permission to enter Rabaa, the far larger of the two protest sites. They had to enter by foot, limiting their rescue work. McClatchy reporters saw roughly 30 bodies piled up in a makeshift morgue at Rabaa field hospital, near one of the sit-ins, with only a fan overhead to keep them cool. Hospital officials said they had 10 more bodies in another room. Reporters saw others outside the site.
As the clashes erupted, the Ministry of Interior urged protesters to use one exit point. But local residents were waiting for them there, vowing to beat up those who left. Later, more avenues were created for protesters to leave.
At least 10 people were killed at the second, much smaller sit-in at Nahda, near Cairo University.
Bursts of tear gas and gunfire continued throughout the day. McClatchy reporters who were caught in the middle of fighting between protesters and police pleaded with an apartment doorman to let them inside the gate. Once there, they could hear the sound of gunfire nearby, the screams of those who were hit and the sound of others breaking up bricks at a nearby construction site to use as rocks.
The violence spread throughout the nation. At least 21 churches were set ablaze, along with police stations.
With many Cairo roads blocked in what appeared to be an effort by the government to stop protesters from coming to the sit-in sites, supporters launched protests in their neighborhoods. In Faiyom, an impoverished governorate south of Cairo that was fiercely loyal to Morsi, at least 17 people died. Clashes also erupted in Ismailia in the Nile Delta, killing at least 15, and the restive Sinai.
Morsi supporters said that at least one child was killed.
In other parts of Cairo, protesters overturned police vehicles and even sent one over a bridge, according to a widely distributed video of the incident.
The government declared a monthlong state of emergency in 14 of the nation’s 27 provinces, effectively allowing security forces to clear the streets without public oversight. From 4 p.m., when it announced the state of emergency, till 7 p.m., when the curfew started, the forces allowed some protesters to leave sit-in sites but arrested nearly 600 others.
It was the third move against the camp at Rabaa. The scale of violence sparked a debate about the government response to the Muslim Brotherhood, the secret organization through which Morsi had ascended to the presidency a year ago, and his Islamists supporters. Last month, Gen. Abdel-Fattah el Sissi, the minister of defense, who announced Morsi’s ouster July 3, asked the public to take to the streets and give him the backing to address the sit-in.
While some decried that fellow Egyptians could treat one another with such brutality, others welcomed the clearing of the sit-in, saying the carnage was necessary for Egypt to move forward.
“Your hearts are cold. These people are peaceful. We have to defend them,” one woman yelled to fellow passengers on the subway early in the morning.
“Stop watching the news!” another replied.
Efforts at negotiations – by Egyptians and the international community – failed in the past month. Neither side could agree on who’d represent it, let alone the major divisive issues of the day.
Ahmed el Tayeb, the sheikh of Al Azhar, a revered institution of Sunni thought, condemned the violence and said he was unaware that the security forces planned to clear the area.
Indeed, he was scheduled to lead negotiations between the Muslim Brotherhood and the government Wednesday, though he’d shared the stage with el Sissi during the July 3 announcement.
At the field hospital, so many bodies came in so quickly, it was clear there wasn’t room for them. “Sha-heed!” – or “Martyr!” – protesters would yell as another dead man came by.
Those who were lucky enough to escape the site sought treatment at a nearby mosque turned hospital. Some tried to take off their shoes at the doors, in accordance with religious customs.
“This is no time to take off shoes!” the imam yelled as blood soiled the mosque carpets.
Every few minutes a man would be carried in, the women would scream and there were quiet murmurs of what the day’s events meant for Egypt’s future.
“We can no longer be peaceful,” a Morsi supporter said as he carried an injured friend.