The Egyptian army gunned down more than 50 supporters of deposed president Mohamed Morsi early Monday morning in Cairo. More than 300 people sustained injuries as well, in the latest, bloodiest, and potentially most destabilizing incident since the army ousted Morsi last Wednesday.
It happened at a sit-in outside the Republican Guard Officers' Club, where a number of protestors calling for the Islamist ex-president's return were encamped. The faithful had risen, to offer the dawn prayer, a number of witnesses said, when the army and police began to shoot tear gas from behind them, as they faced to the east.
Whether protesters provoked the army’s actions is unclear. In the aftermath of Friday’s clashes between pro- and anti-Morsi demonstrators on the 6th October Bridge in central Cairo, it’s becoming clear that these first days of interim military rule are proving to be harrowing and blood soaked.
At a press conference late Monday, the army and police claimed that the protesters had initiated the attack, in an attempt to storm the Republican Guard's facility, where Morsi is rumored to be held.
However, ten protesters who witnessed the killings, whom I interviewed later that day, agreed that there was no violence prior to the initial volley of tear gas.
Photos by Justin Wilkes
According to their accounts, protesters retreated before several established a line around 100 yards away from the sit-in's initial position, on a corner by an apartment block. The army were about four yards away, one man said, as the protesters chanted, "Down with the military regime."
Several of the witnesses stories were unclear, but one man's testimony potentially offered insight into why the military might have responded so aggressively.
Ahmed el-Sayyed, 21, an engineering student, was on the front lines, when one soldier shot bullets into the ground. "He wanted to force us back," Ahmed said.
The next thing he knew, the soldier had been shot dead. Then, Ahmed said, the soldiers begun to fire live ammunition into the crowd, as well as tear gas, and shotguns with birdshot cartridges.
Ahmed says that none of the protesters whom he talked to saw who shot the soldier; he believes the soldier was shot by one of his colleagues, after having refused to fire directly into the crowd. "It must have been one of them. We did not and would not do anything like that," he said, particularly because "there were women" present at the time.
Photo by Tom Dale
Ahmed's assumption seems far-fetched, and the more obvious possibility that a protester lost his cool and fired at the soldier would seem to be a more cogent explanation, but no solid evidence exists to support or deny either claim.
But most people I talked to agreed that both sides had guns, and several said that protestors fired birdshot—which is potentially, but rarely, deadly—at the army after the first wave of tear gas.
If the army had indeed opened fire in cold blood, it wouldn't be the first time. A VICE team at a nearby sit-in last Wednesday witnessed the army's firing into a crowd after dark from the direction of an army facility—apparently, killing one and wounding three, according to activists at the sit-in. There was no evidence of an attack on the army. At a massacre outside the state TV building in October 2011, soldiers killed 28, mostly Christians.
Reports from the makeshift field hospital nearby, and from the morgue, suggest that most of the dead were shot through the back, perhaps as they begun to run. Photographs show the mortuary of a local hospital, its floors smeared with blood. Bullet casings scattered on the tarmac at the site of the massacre bear the Arabic initials for the Egyptian Arab Army.
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