‘They Struck Us Down Like Animals’
As Egyptian authorities use brute force to disperse two pro-Morsy sit-ins, protesters vow to resist the crackdown until the bitter end.
CAIRO — A hail of gunfire crackled in the background as paramedics rushed a young male protester on a blood-spattered stretcher away from the frontline of the Islamist sit-in in Cairo’s Nasr City. The neat bullet wound to his stomach, the medics speculated, was from a rifle round. For a few minutes they tried CPR — but to no avail. Before anyone could learn his name, the man, who appeared to be in his twenties, was dead.
"Most of them are shot in the head or the chest," said the exhausted looking medic, Ahmed, his green uniform smeared with dried blood. "In my truck alone, four protesters have died."
This is how it went for most of the day on Wednesday, Aug. 14, as Egyptian security forces’ attempt to clear two sit-ins manned by supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsy devolved into a bloody, 12-hour long battle that by nightfall in Cairo left more than 250 dead and 800 injured. It marked the single most violent day in Egypt since Hosni Mubarak was ousted from power in February 2011.
The Interior Ministry, the military, and interim government had promised to peacefully disperse the camps, raising the idea of cutting off their electricity and water to force protesters to go home. But at 6:30 a.m. this morning, it became clear they had decided to take a less subtle approach: Armored cars, police officers, and soldiers marched on the protests in Nasr City and Giza, opening fire with birdshot, tear gas, and live ammunition.
"They didn’t give us a chance. They struck us down like animals, I’ve never seen it like this," said Ahmed Azazy, a 44-year-old businessman from Banha, who was taking a rest from the front line of the clashes by the main encampment. "I can’t tell you the amount of people who died in front of me. Go to the field hospital, see how many bodies there are."
The Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque, which sits at the center of the Nasr City sit-in, became a makeshift morgue as the casualties from clashes with the police mounted, eyewitnesses told Foreign Policy. The ground was covered in blood, protesters reported, and medics were forced to lay the bodies on the floor. Most were shot dead, they said. One reportedly burned to death after his tent was set on fire.
The field hospital next to the mosque was surrounded by clashes. Protesters on the southern side of the sit-in took turns sprinting through a corridor of live fire to access the building in order to check on the wounded and the dead.
Hours into the onslaught, hundreds of protesters still held their ground, resisting the security forces with rocks and Molotov cocktails thrown over the makeshift barricades of pavement stones. Meanwhile, women and children remained huddled behind sandbags and concrete walls in a southern corner of the Nasr City sit-in. The gunfire, coming from all directions, was bewildering. Bullets rained down from above and zipped past at street level — protesters claimed they had seen snipers shooting down on the encampment from the overlooking buildings. Black columns of smoke mingled with the impenetrable plumes of tear gas, making it difficult to breathe.
"Killers, they’re killers, they slaughtered us like sheep," shouted one protester on his way back from the frontline, a Quran tied around his neck and a cheap plastic gas mask on his head.
Standing among the weary fighters, a protester took a break from the fighting and started a chant to boost morale. "We are ready to give our blood and our soul for Islam," he shouted, and hundreds joined in. They climbed the sandbags in defiance of the security forces, who respond with gunfire.
On the side streets of the residential area, security forces shot at anyone attempting to access the sit-in. Residents, journalists, and families of those trapped inside ran from car to car, taking cover from the hail of gunfire. The authorities had promised a safe exit — but all entrances were barricaded in by the security forces or blocked by street battles.
"My son, he’s just 21 years old, he went to help when he heard the gunfire. He cannot get out, we cannot get in, what do we do?" said Mona Salama, 40, a doctor who lives nearby. "There are snipers on the buildings who shot at us as we tried to get in. It’s not safe."
Eyewitnesses later reported that the security forces raided the medical center, forcing protesters and medics to flee, leaving the dead behind. For its part, the Muslim Brotherhood released a statement accusing the police of stealing the bodies to cover up the size of the massacre.
The violence was not restricted to the capital. In Upper Egypt, pro-Morsy demonstrators attacked local government offices, setting fire to a courthouse in the city of Beni Suef. Some 41 people were killed in the province of Minya, according to Health Ministry officials, as street battles with security forces raged on into the evening.
It was not just Morsy supporters who were under attack: By midday, the violence had morphed into sectarian bloodshed. The main Coptic Christian church in Sohag and in Minya was set on fire by Islamist protesters according to local media reports. In the Nile Delta’s governorate of Gharbia, citizens formed human chains around one church in a bid to protect it from an impending assault.
With Egypt in flames, the government moved quickly to try to restore law and order by all means necessary. Interim President Adly Mansour’s office announced that a curfew would be put in place from 9 p.m. until 7 a.m., and that a month-long state of emergency would be implemented. Mansour also called on the military to support the Ministry of Interior and its police force.
But even as Mansour tried to assert control, his administration was showing signs of strain. Vice President Mohamed ElBaradei, who had been pushing for reconciliation with the Muslim Brotherhood, tendered his resignation in a statement that condemned the breakup of the sit-ins.
However, other political forces sympathetic to the government defended the crackdown. Egypt’s main coalition of non-Islamist forces, the National Salvation Front (NSF), defended the actions of the security forces in a statement, calling the day "a victory against all political forces trafficking in the name of religion." Khaled Daoud, a leading member of the NSF, told Al Jazeera that the Muslim Brotherhood bears "full responsibility" for what happened, as their encampments were not peaceful.
The destruction of the pro-Morsy protesters’ sit-ins, however, seems to have done nothing to dull the opposition’s resolve to keep up the resistance to the military government. Even after 12 hours of bullets and tear gas, they were already preparing for the next round of fighting.
At the back of the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque, where protesters were still battling with lines of police, protesters remained determined to keep the demonstrations going.
"Whatever the police do, we will get Morsy back, he will remain our president," said Ahmed Alam, a 28-year-old engineer readying himself to go back into the fight. "They have to kill 80 million of us to get the power they so desperately want."