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 Many here fear that Morsi’s incompetent Islamist government has been replaced by an excessively brutal security force reminiscent of the three decades of Hosni Mubarak’s rule.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.
“From the sound of gunfire, I thought 5,000 people had died. They were shooting for no reason,” the soldier said. “Everyone in the military is sick of the Muslim Brotherhood,” he offered by way of explanation, referring to the organization through which Morsi ascended to the presidency and that now bolsters his supporters.
If there had been tear gas before the shooting, residents didn’t smell it, though they noted that it often takes a while for the gas to reach their homes.
Khalid Sayed, 25, a grocer who lives on the first floor of one of the apartment buildings, said he’d grown accustomed to noise outside his window as protesters chanted against Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the minister of defense and the head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, who’d announced July 3 that Morsi was no longer president. By 2 a.m., the chants were waning, and Sayed had fallen asleep.
A burst of gunfire woke him. When he looked out his window, he saw protesters fleeing east and west on Salah Salem Street and south on Tayaran Street. Several witnesses told McClatchy they then saw soldiers start to move past the barbed wire that separated the troops from Morsi supporters and toward the protesters. Soon afterward, the gates to the Republican Guard headquarters opened, and more and more troops moved out, Sayed said.
“We are used to noise. But I didn’t hear anything before. Just shooting,” Sayed said.
In a news briefing in the days after the attack, military spokesman Col. Ahmed Mohammed Ali said the military had tried to avoid using force, urging protesters to go back and launching tear gas and blank rounds before finally resorting to deadly force.
Ali said the military must defend government facilities no matter who was threatening them. Of the 55 people killed, three were soldiers or police officers, the government has said.
Mahmoud Suleiman, 28, a pharmacist, said he didn’t see any protesters shoot in those crucial initial minutes.
“As soon as I heard the shots, I moved to my balcony. The Republican Guard is right next to my apartment. I just saw the soldiers shooting. I didn’t see the Brotherhood shooting, but maybe I didn’t see everything. I just saw Brotherhood with sticks.”
Suleiman said he heard a Brotherhood sheik who was leading the protesters yell through a loudspeaker, “Don’t shoot. We are your brothers!”
Doctors whom McClatchy interviewed that morning said most of the patients admitted to the hospital had been struck in the neck, head and chest, but none of the witnesses saw where the wounded had been struck, just streams of blood flowing from their bodies.
Sayed also said he’d seen soldiers beating some of the protesters.
As the attack escalated, some apartment-building residents tried to go down and record the events but soldiers urged them to go back inside. One man showed McClatchy his shaky 18-second video of a soldier waving people inside. The video was shot during daylight, at least an hour after the gunfire had begun.
Omar Khalid, 24, said he didn’t leave his home until the gunfire had subsided two hours later. Others said that when they opened their front doors, they found protesters in the hallways, begging for shelter.
“Open the door or we will die,” Khalid remembered protesters telling him.
As the sun rose, residents said, they found shell casings and tear gas canisters strewn along Salah Salem Street.
Small reminders of the attack remain at the scene. At his shop, Sayed has a boot that belongs to one of the wounded. A bullet hole runs through it, near the ankle, and a bullet is inside. In front of the building, the walkway is broken up; protesters had used the bricks as weapons.
Cameras have been installed on the tops of the apartment buildings, perhaps so neither side can contest who’s at fault.
“Everyone is asking what happened,” Sayed said. The security forces “couldn’t have moved out in those kinds of numbers without a plan.”
McClatchy special correspondent Amina Ismail contributed to this report.