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 Cairo’s 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 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 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.
At least 10 were killed at a second but much smaller sit-in site in Nahda, near Cairo University, which officials successfully cleared by mid-afternoon.
Among those killed at Rabaa were at least two journalists, including Sky News cameraman Mick Deane, a 15-year veteran. And despite government assurances that journalists would be allowed to see inside the sit-in, several were arrested or threatened when they tried.
There were also conflicting reports that the daughter of Brotherhood supreme leader Khairat al-Shater and her husband were killed in Rabaa, as well as Freedom and Justice Party leader Mohamed El Beltagy's daughter Asmaa, 17. The new government already had arrested Shater; Beltagy was believed to be hiding in Rabaa.
Rabaa, where Morsi supporters have been sitting –- and in some cases living -– since June 28, remained a sit-in by mid-afternoon, despite the carnage. But it now appeared more like a battlefield than a protest site. Residents positioned their cars as barricades and pieces of concrete were removed from the sidewalk and broken up to be used as rocks. As protesters tried to go to the hospital, they huddled and ran to the building to dodge the gunfire, which never stopped from the first attack at 7 a.m.
Witnesses said that an hour earlier military and police vehicles began surrounding the several block site, which included numbered tents, bathrooms and kitchens for the thousands living there. Around 7 a.m., forces threw tear gas into the crowds, said Mohammed el Nagger, 64, a carpenter who has been at the site since June 28, two days before Morsi’s first anniversary in office. 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 each other, 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.”
Morsi opponents charged that they were marginalized under the former president, the first democratically elected leader in Egypt’s history. Facing growing unpopularity and unprecedented protests, the military announced he was no longer president, replaced by interim leader Adly Mansour. Morsi’s ouster spurred his protesters to stay in the sit-in until he was reinstated. In an instant, Morsi supporters went from governing the country to be branded as terrorists by their usurpers and the majority of Egyptians who opposed them.
Efforts failed in the past month of negotiations, both by Egyptians and the international community. Neither side could agree on who would represent them, let only the major divisive issues of the day.
Now in power again, the military and its civilian named government blamed the Brotherhood for the violence Wednesday urging them to side with “reason.”
As the clashes erupted, the Ministry of Interior urged protesters to use one exit point. But waiting for them there were local residents who vowed to beat up those leaving. On a bridge looking over the police vehicles stationed nearby, a man ripped a Morsi poster in front of the police.
Ahmed Tayab, sheikh of al Azhar, a revered institution of Sunni thought, condemned the violence and said he was unaware the security forces planned to clear the area. Indeed, he was scheduled to lead negotiations between the Brotherhood and the government Wednesday even as he 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 was not 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 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 into the morgue.
Video, images (some graphic) from Wednesday's attacks: