CAIRO -- Adel Amer, 44, said he was one of those who beat protesters at a fierce and ultimately deadly standoff Wednesday in front of Egypt’s presidential palace between supporters and opponents of President Mohammed Morsi.
Amer said he had to do it. Morsi’s opponents were taking drugs that numb them to pain, he said. The police could not handle the melee on their own, so he and fellow members of the Muslim Brotherhood grabbed them, beat them and handed them over to officers.
“We had to beat them so they would confess,” he said, listing their crimes: starting the fighting, bribing others to cause trouble or working to undo the democratic election that Morsi won five months ago. “We had no other option. We protected the police.”
Friday was a day of reckoning for the worst political violence in the nearly two years since Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was ousted. At least six people had been killed and hundreds injured in the battle outside the presidential palace, and a new war had emerged between the pro- and anti-Morsi camps in this bitterly polarized nation: Who incited the violence? Both sides charged the other with torturing and shooting the victims.
A lawyer representing the Muslim Brotherhood, the group through which Morsi rose to prominence, told McClatchy that of the 700 injured, 633 were Morsi supporters, and some had been abused by opposition protesters.
Meanwhile, one of the 15 lawyers representing the opposition, Ragia Orwan, said that 40 people had been beaten and tortured by members of the Brotherhood.
Another lawyer said the police should not have allowed the Brotherhood members to make arrests. Instead, they should have arrested those who were beating protesters, whatever their affiliation.
The police allowed the Brotherhood to make arrests to save the protesters’ lives, said Malek Adly, a human rights lawyer, representing the injured. If the police hadn’t taken custody, he said, the protesters might have been killed.
That the divide here led to violence heightened already passionate feelings on both sides. Each claimed to have suffered more injuries, more torture and more deaths at the hands of their opponents. And in the absence of security forces intervening to curtail the violence, each side also asserted that it was the proper defender of what the Egyptian people want from their first democratically elected government.
On Friday, the courts were packed with victims filing suits against those they felt were responsible for their injuries or the deaths of their loved ones. Opponents filed charges against Morsi, the minister of the interior and other top officials, saying they were liable because they did not carry out their duties to secure the nation.
Others, like Amer, filed charges against the opposition leadership – former presidential candidates Hamdeen Sabahi, Amr Moussa and Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency who’s now been declared the leader of the opposition. Also named were members of the government of Mubarak, who were charged with inciting the violence.
There were funerals for the dead, and both sides remained unwavering in their positions on the scheduled constitutional referendum Dec. 15. It was clear that neither side could immunize itself from blame or violence, and there was no hope for talks to ease the tension. Opposition leaders rejected Morsi’s call to meet Saturday to discuss the issues, and by Friday night, thousands were back at the palace, calling for Morsi to go.
At hospitals, friends held vigils for those who still clung to life. Among them was El-Hosseini Abul-Deif, a journalist who was shot once in the middle of his forehead after he photographed a Morsi supporter armed with a gun, his friends said.
Amer said that he and his neighbors had traveled from Suez to show support peacefully for Morsi in the dispute, which was triggered Nov. 22 when Morsi declared his actions above review by the country’s courts, a move his opponents have called an illicit grab for power to push through a hastily produced constitution written by the Muslim Brotherhood.
Amer said he and his friends arrived at the presidential palace about 6:30 p.m. Wednesday and stood with other Morsi supporters on the street that runs in front of the compound. As they chanted with fellow supporters, a crowd suddenly surrounded them and started throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails, he explained, pulling down his socks to show how he was injured. They threw the only weapons they had – rocks – to push the crowd back, he said.
“In one minute, I swear, I saw 10 people shot,” he recalled.
As they fled, Amer was separated from his neighbor and fellow Morsi supporter, Yasser Ibrahim. Hours passed, so Amer tried to call Ibrahim’s cellphone number. Someone else answered, however, and Amer assumed that that person had stolen Ibrahim’s phone in the battle. Amer traveled back to Suez and went to his neighbor’s house to check on Ibrahim. “He is not with you?” his wife asked. “He didn’t come home.”
Amer, who had been back in Suez for just one hour, returned to Cairo and began searching hospitals. At one they said there was one unidentified body, and Amer went to see if it was his friend. He didn’t recognize the man. His right eye had been blown out, his brain was outside its skull and there were gunshot wounds along the right side of his body.
But the shirt was Ibrahim’s, and Amer knew his friend was dead. He spoke from the morgue where he was waiting for an autopsy to be completed so he could bring Ibrahim home.
Amer began to cry.
“We don’t want to take all the power,” he said. “We want Egypt to move in the right direction. But we can’t let people keep changing the president every few months. He was elected.”
On Friday, the judiciary announced that all charges against those arrested had been dropped since there were no accusations made by either police or the Brotherhood members who’d arrested them.
But that brought little comfort to either side. Nobody had emerged a winner.
McClatchy special correspondent Amina Ismail contributed.