A Divided Egypt Battles with Fireworks, Rocks, and Guns

By Tom Dale

The young man's face was covered in a flag made to serve as a bloody, makeshift shroud. His unconscious head bounced with the jog of the men who carried him.

He was among hundreds hurt in Cairo on Friday, when tens of thousands of supporters of former President Mohamed Morsi—summarily removed by the country's military on Wednesday—took to the streets to demand his reinstatement.

By the day's close, at least 30 were dead nationwide, and Morsi's supporters had been beaten back from the center of Cairo, in clashes that saw both sides deploy automatic weapons. The position of the Muslim Brotherhood, Morsi's major backers, seemed to have weakened as a key leader was arrested, even as their rhetoric remained defiant.

The injured young man was being carried from a demonstration where a few thousand of Morsi's supporters had gathered to demand his release. Police and soldiers had fired into the crowd. Video footage posted to YouTube appears to show officers shooting a man dead from close range, in cold blood.

Later, near the barbed wire, I saw one officer fire a tear gas canister into the crowd with no visible provocation. Attack helicopters dipped low over the protest.


Soldiers face off with supporters of former President Morsi

Most Morsi supporters say they have a simple demand: democracy. The millions of protestors who hit the streets on June 30th called on the military to intervene to depose Morsi claimed that the President had lost his legitimacy by governing in the interests of the Brotherhood, rather than the nation as a whole.

As daylight faded, a march of Morsi's supporters made its way over the 6 October Bridge—named from Egypt's 1973 war with Israel—towards Tahrir Square, packed with people celebrating Morsi's fall. Marching to Tahrir was no doubt an act of provocation.

By the time the VICE team arrived on the scene an anti-Morsi crowd had also arrived to stop the march from reaching Tahrir Square. There was fighting on the bridge and on the corniche below it. The blasts of homemade weapons rang out, whistling overhead; fireworks, petrol bombs, and rocks were lobbed in both directions. Eventually, we saw a couple of guys with AK47s moving toward the front line.  A few seconds later, rifles cracked, and several more casualties were carried back, a young kid screaming. The back and forth continued for hours, with occasional bursts of automatic fire.

Eventually, Morsi's supporters appeared to withdraw, and the military appeared, rumbling over the bridge towards us in armored vehicles. Civilians sat on the vehicles with soldiers, chanting with the jubilant crowd, "The people and the army are one hand."

Less than two years ago, crowds fought the military—which then held the reigns of political power—in clashes that were nearly as bloody, chanting "down with the military regime."

Since then, I've watched street fighting evolve. Once, civilians chucked rocks and the occasional petrol bomb at police, who fired back with shotguns, tear gas, and sometimes with rifles. By November of last year, most of the fighting was between civilians, and shotguns were pretty common. Friday, the police didn't even bother showing up, and civilians shot at each other with automatic weapons in the center of town.

An influx of automatic weapons to Egypt from Libya is supplemented by makeshift shotguns and pistols made in back-room metal shops across Cairo. Increasingly, some people feel the need to be armed and don't feel they have anything left to lose by using them.

I didn't manage to speak to many of Morsi's supporters after they ran back across the bridge. But those I spoke to earlier in the day were already feeling disenfranchised and angry. Unless the country's new politics gives them some reason to believe they can make a place for themselves again, they'll likely go to the streets again.  And now, people are bringing guns.

@Tom_D_

More from Egypt:

Egypt After Morsi - Trailer

Video from Friday's Clashes on October 6th Bridge in Cairo

 

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