CAIRO -- Overlooking the scene where 55 supporters of deposed President Mohammed Morsi died during a standoff with the Egyptian military two weeks ago are two 16-story apartment buildings whose residents are perhaps the only unbiased witnesses to what happened.
With no videos or photos having surfaced of the initial violence, Morsi supporters and the military have offered two very different versions of what set off the confrontation, the deadliest incident since the military toppled Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected leader, early this month. At least 100 people have since died in clashes between the military and Morsi partisans, most recently Tuesday, when nine people were killed.
But the July 8 incident outside the Republican Guard headquarters in eastern Cairo remains a touchstone for those who say Morsi was toppled in a military coup and that the military has since taken an approach to Islamists that guarantees years of low-level warfare. Many here fear that Morsi’s incompetent Islamist government has been replaced by an excessively brutal security force reminiscent of the three decades of Hosni Mubarak’s rule. Indeed, it was a call against police brutality that launched the January 2011 uprising that led to Mubarak’s fall.
The military’s version of events says pro-Morsi protesters tried to storm the Republican Guard headquarters, where Morsi partisans think the deposed president is being held, and that security forces turned to live bullets only after they’d fired warning shots, blank rounds and tear gas to no effect.
Protesters say they were simply praying when an unwarranted attack began.
The stories of nine occupants of the apartment buildings whom McClatchy interviewed seem to back the protesters’ version of events, even though many of those residents said they had little sympathy for Morsi and had grown frustrated with the protesters’ constant chants, which had gone on for days.
Among them is a 24-year-old soldier who painfully conceded that the military “used excessive force” as he recalled the initial sounds he heard. The soldier, whom McClatchy isn’t identifying for his security, said he thought the military was fed up with protesters and that the shooting reflected that.
For four days leading up to the attack, Morsi supporters had been staging a sit-in at the site, chanting against the military and at times vowing revenge. Some would hurl insults at the troops. On July 5, protesters had tried to storm the headquarters and troops had opened fire. A widely distributed video showed a man lying on the ground near soldiers, shot in the head.
But what unfolded July 8 was very different, residents said.
The July 5 incident took place in the daytime, after hours of escalating tensions. There were witnesses with cameras. The day had been tumultuous before the outburst of gunfire.
What happened July 8 came during a rare silence in what had been days of noisy protest.
The residents said they didn’t hear crowds charging or screams from the military for protesters to move back until after the initial burst of gunfire; the military said all those things happened before anyone had fired a shot.
Nor did the residents recall seeing or hearing protesters praying, as Morsi supporters claimed.
What they do remember is being awakened suddenly, just before 3:45 a.m., by a burst of gunfire so powerful that they think it could have come only from the military. It wasn’t until after the shots began that they heard security forces urging people to move back.