Today's news that police and army troops moved in on supporters of Egypt’s former President Mohamed Morsi did not come as a surprise. The shock lay in the uncompromising speed at which the authorities moved. By nightfall, the death toll was well over 200.
Tens of thousands of Morsi’s devotees had been camped out in east Cairo since he was ousted in a military takeover last month. For weeks, the security services had threatenend to forcibly remove the protesters, and on Sunday night media outlets reported that Rabaa al-Adaweya, a sprawling encampment filled with thousands of Morsi supporters, was to be cleared once and for all. The clearance, the interior ministry promised, would be “gradual,” stretching over a number of days. Police would first surround the encampment, and then escalate to the use of tear gas and water cannons. But there was nothing gradual about the dispersal when it finally came at 6 AM this morning. In fact, the crackdown was so brutal it prompted Egypt's interim vice president, Mohammed Elbaradei, to resign.
Initial reports suggested that police had broken the sit-in’s dawn calm with tear gas and live ammunition, but since mobile networks were overloaded, the finer details remained impossible to confirm. When I tried to enter myself, all roads to Rabaa were blocked. Police and soldiers were stationed in every side street and refused to budge. As I tried to find a safe route in, the officers made it clear that outsiders were not welcome. I spent my morning crouching behind cars and dodging the birdshot pellets and live ammunition that riot police were firing at bystanders. One ill-advised venture out into the open resulted in painful hits to both my legs.
Although Egypt has been no stranger to political violence in the years since the 2011 revolution that toppled dictator Hosni Mubarak, the past month has seen the bloodshed ratchet up another level. This morning, dozens of distraught families gathered outside the besieged sit-in. "I left overnight so I could finally get some sleep," says Mai Arafa, a young pharmacist who had spent the whole week inside Rabaa. "I left my fiancé. He says he won't leave." She said that she was now ready to join him if she could find a way to reenter the camp. "I cannot desert him, and I will not desert this cause."
Like many of those inside Rabaa, Mai said that she was not there out of personal allegiance to Morsi himself. She was there to support an idea and to defend a democratic process that she saw as one of the few tangible victories from the 2011 revolution.
“I am not a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, but I did vote for Mohamed Morsi,” she told me. “The way he has been stolen from his people is the greatest injustice of all.”
But many disagree. Deep divisions have plagued Egypt in the wake of the military takeover, and the polarization was evident on the streets of Cairo today. Local residents gathered behind military lines on one Rabaa side street, chanting, "The army and the people are one hand!" As they cheered, a plume of black smoke bellowed out from the encampment behind.
At 2 PM I finally passed through the barricades. The scene was one of chaos. On previous days, the protesters had told me that they would not surrender their ground, and today they made good on that promise. As women and children huddled under the blue awnings that stretch across the half-mile sit-in, thousands of men, young and old, were standing up to the security forces. It wasn't a fair fight. For weeks it had been rumored that the demonstrators were hoarding handguns in preparation for this onslaught. But the only weapons I saw today were stones, smashed out of the pavement and snatched from the labyrinthine barricades that had made Rabaa an impenetrable fortress—or so it had seemed to its occupants.
Inside a makeshift field hospital, the flow of casualties and corpses overwhelmed Rabaa’s doctors. They had little choice but to power through, though. The road outside had become a corridor of gunfire; it was impossible to ferry the injured toward an ambulance without running the gauntlet carrying a man on a stretcher.
Some didn’t make it. Standing at the open door of an ambulance at the edge of the sit-in, I watched a young man pass through gunfire as he was carried by friends. By the time he arrived, he was dead.
When Rabaa's morgue was full, bodies were piled in corridors across two floors. Even the mosque would later become a morgue, with dozens of bodies carefully laid out on the floor. Around them stood hundreds of women and children, left with no choice but to take shelter with the dead.
As night falls on one of Egypt’s bloodiest days, the fighting continues.
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