CAIRO -- Egypt security forces launched an early morning attack Wednesday on two sit-ins by supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi, firing ammunition and razing the sites with bulldozers in an attack that could end up killing hundreds.
As of mid-afternoon, Health Ministry officials said that 149 had been killed and 1,000 injured but those numbers appear to be conservative. Officials said at least five of those killed were police officers as the nationwide clashes sent this already fragile country into a downward spiral of polarization and instability.
The government effort to clear the site shut down the nation and plunged its streets into battlefields armed forces against citizens with rocks. Near the site of the larger sit-in, in Cairos eastern section of 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.
The government declared a month-long state of emergency Wednesday, effectively allowing security forces to clear the streets without public oversight.
But before that, throughout the day were bursts of tear gas and gunfire. McClatchy reporters caught in the middle of such fighting between protesters and police pleaded with an apartment doorman to let them inside the gate. Once there, reporters could hear the sound of nearby gunfire, screams of those hit and others breaking up bricks at a nearby construction site to use as rocks, each noise rattling the walls of the ramshackle building.
The violence spread throughout the nation as at least a dozen churches were set ablaze, along with police stations nationwide. With many roads blocked in what appeared to be an effort by the government to stop protesters from coming to the sit-in sites, supporters instead launched protests in their neighborhoods. In Faiyom, an impoverished governorate south of Cairo that was fiercely loyal to Morsi, at least 17 people died in clashes.
Morsi supporters said at least one child was killed.
This is the third such attack on Rabaa, but the surprise and scale of this violence spurred a national discourse about the government response to the latest marginalized group, this time the Muslim Brotherhood, the secret organization through which Morsi ascended to the presidency a year ago, and his Islamists supporters. Last month, Gen. Abdel-Fatah el-Sissi, the minister of defense who announced Morsis 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 site, 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 morning.
Stop watching the news! replied another.
Ambulance workers told McClatchy they did not have permission to enter Rabaa, the far larger of the sites, and instead had to go in by foot, limiting what they could see and take back to the morgue. McClatchy reporters saw roughly 30 bodies piled up in a makeshift morgue at Rabaa field hospital, near the site of one of the sit-ins, with no more than a fan overhead to keep the bodies cool. And hospital officials said they had 10 more in another room in the same field hospital. McClatchy reporters saw other bodies outside the site; those people had tried to escape the carnage.