Anti-Morsi demonstrators gather outside the presidential palace as helicopters fly overhead.
The first bloodied victims began to arrive at the crude field hospital behind Cairo's Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque in the early hours of Saturday morning. To begin with, the main causes of the injuries were birdshot and tear gas, inflicted when security forces fired on protesters nearby.
A little after 4AM, casualties started to flood in with bullet wounds from live rounds fired by police and gunmen clothed as civilians. Many were already dead by the time they were carried in, others fatally wounded. The small, under-equipped facility was quickly overwhelmed. “I was shocked to see the chaos of the field hospital – I cannot forget the scene there,” said Dr Mohammad Elatfy, who had rushed to help when he saw an appeal for medics on local TV. “All of the beds were occupied and the floors were covered with blood, the injured and the dead.”
When Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first freely elected president, was overthrown on July the 3rd, Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque became the centre of a sit-in staged by the Islamist supporters demanding his reinstatement. The surrounding streets were transformed into a brick-barricaded tent city housing tens of thousands of men, women and children.
Up until this weekend, Egypt’s new military rulers had accepted the encampment. However, when General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, head of the Egyptian armed forces, called for his supporters to take to the streets on Friday to give him a “mandate” to fight “terrorism”, violence in Cairo seemed inevitable. (Senior Brotherhood figure Mohamed el-Beltagy even claimed that Sisi was "calling for a civil war... to protect this military coup".)
Friday began relatively peacefully. By early afternoon the mood in Tahrir Square, the rallying point for anti-Morsi protesters, was bordering on festive. Tanks were lined up on the approach roads and senior military officers supervised the civilian checkpoints. They were clearly a welcome presence; orders were followed instantly and smiling demonstrators – who see the Egyptian military as comrades in their fight against the Brotherhood – posed for pictures next to personnel and vehicles.
More anti-Morsi protesters demonstrating outside the presidential palace.
Inside the square, flag waving, face-painted protesters carried placards bearing pictures of al-Sisi and slogans such as, “I authorise you against terrorism.” Army helicopters circled above, frequently getting so close that the backdraft blasted dust and small stones into the crowds of demonstrators. Unfazed, many raised their arms, cheered and embraced the dust storm.
“We’re here to confront terrorism and to act against the Muslim Brotherhood,” said one protester. “They only want power and [we stand] against them – we support our army.”
The exact nature of the “terrorism” being confronted varied depending on who you asked. Some accused the Muslim Brotherhood of involvement in attacks on tourists committed over the years, such as the Luxor massacre. Another, who introduced himself as Joe and said he planned to join his wife in Birmingham after Ramadan, suggested that Morsi’s followers had let Hezbollah and Hamas fighters into Egypt via tunnels that led from Palestine to Sinai.
A less pissed off group of mixed Christian and Muslim demonstrators told me that, to them, the protest was about unity for the Egyptian people. “We are the same and the Muslim Brotherhood won’t separate us,” they said, gesturing at the wrist tattoos some of them were sporting, which are common in the country’s Copt population.
Joe’s brother suddenly interjected. He wanted to talk about America and was very upset that the US government had delayed a delivery of F-16s in response to Sisi’s call to the streets. “There’s something I want to say,” he spat. “Fucking Obama – he stopped supporting us. He won’t help the military because he wants Morsi back. The [June 30th] revolution has ruined their fucking plans for the Middle East.”
Morsi supporters at the sit-in outside the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque.
Anne Patterson, the US Ambassador to Egypt, came in for even more vehement abuse: “The fucking ambassador, we want her out. She’s doing a fucking deal under the table with the Muslim Brotherhood.” Patterson must have one of the most thankless jobs ever inhabited; pro-Morsi supporters often make a similar claim regarding her relations with anti-Islamist groups.
Hostility towards the US was generally high in Tahrir. Arriving alongside an American journalist, I was only able to get into the square thanks to an army officer’s intervention. Others reported being turned away at the checkpoint entrance. Later, being Scottish netted me a far more positive reception: “Aha, you guys are tough, strong,” said one protester, proffering his fist. “Freedom!”
That night, pro-military marches from all over Cairo converged on the square. Fireworks were let off and cheering demonstrators climbed on tanks. There was a mock trial, too, in which Morsi was fake-sentenced to life imprisonment to a rapturous reception. Back in reality, it turns out that he's been held in secret detention for the past three weeks and will be investigated for charges that could potentially lead to a death sentence.
A man breaks down as the bodies of Morsi supporters are carried out of a makeshift hospital.
At the peak of this merriment, the military invited many of the more prominent Western journalists in town on a helicopter sightseeing trip over Tahrir. Coincidentally – or perhaps not – over at Rabaa, this was around the time that police first attacked Morsi supporters at the fringes of the sit-in. Eyewitnesses reported that a group of demonstrators had been moving out from the mosque towards October 6th bridge but found their way blocked by security forces, who then opened fire on them with tear gas and shotguns. Hassan Ali, an Arabic teacher, said the police were backed by armed men in civilian clothing, although it is unclear whether they were undercover police officers, local residents or hired heavies.
Protesters say they only threw rocks, fireworks and tear gas canisters back, although some journalists on the scene reported outgoing fire from the demonstrators, too. There were no deaths among the police, according to the interior ministry.
An injured Morsi supporter is taken to a makeshift hospital for treatment.
I arrived at Rabaa soon after the shooting finished. The wounded were everywhere. Less serious cases were collapsed on the floor of the mosque itself, while people held up drip bags and used needles were left in empty drinks bottles. Volunteers clutching plastic bags full of medical supplies passed by, pausing to remove their shoes at the door and rushing through to the field hospital where the most critically injured cases had been taken.
There, the influx of patients and bodies had been almost too much to bear. “We can’t continue,” said Dr Ahmed Fawzy. “Patients died here, here and here,” he told me, gesturing at three different spots within a foot of where he stood. “I didn’t even have space to work.”
Fawzy and others said that many of the injuries were bullets to the head, chest, neck and abdomen, seemingly indicating that lethal force had been intended.
Once the chaos had subsided a little, a corridor was cleared among the crowds in the makeshift emergency room to move bodies from a temporary morgue to local hospitals so that relatives could claim them. The hospital staff made sure that journalists and photographers had the best possible view for this grim photo opportunity.
We waited for a while as exhausted-looking men in hi-vis jackets, many still with their surgical gloves on, helped to keep the channel open. After some time a procession of bodies shrouded in bloodstained white sheets were rushed through to waiting ambulances accompanied by chants of “Sisi leave”, “Sisi killer” and “Allahu akbar”.
As the stretcher-bearers hurried back and forth, men linked arms and sobbed while women wiped their eyes through tear-stained Niqabs. Outside, as the bodies were loaded into ambulances, blood spilled onto the concrete.
A memorial for a killed Morsi supporter.
Doctors at the field hospital reported as many as 120 dead, while the official body count stands at 72 and Human Rights Watch estimated at least 74. Either way, it is the greatest single loss of life in a mass killing since Hosni Mubarak was deposed in January 2011, worse still than the Republican Guard’s club shootings in which 51 Muslim Brotherhood supporters died earlier this month.
In the aftermath, Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim said security forces had used nothing but tear gas against the protesters, but based on the number of bullet wounds and deaths this seems extremely unlikely.
Back at Rabaa, the mood was defiant; the massacre seemed to have only strengthened the protesters' resolve to stay, particularly as many felt it was the only way to avoid future persecution of the Muslim Brotherhood. In the afternoon sunshine, a group was constructing another brick barricade across one of the entrance roads.
A Morsi supporter sits in front of a barriacde where clashes took place.
“We don’t have a choice. If we leave now, our neck will be the price. If they keep killing us, we will never go home again,” said Abdul Abraham, a journalist usually based in the UAE. "You might come back here in an hour, a day or a week, and we may be dead,” shouted another man. “But we’ll keep fighting.”
On the military side, resolve also remains strong. Ibrahim has made his intention to disperse the sit-in as soon as possible very clear, and many expect the armed forces to make good on this threat soon. Meanwhile, the National Defence Council said yesterday that non-peaceful protests would be met with "firm and decisive" action.
Attempts are being made at mediation; EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton is now in Cairo for talks with leaders from both sides. However, unsurprisingly, neither looks likely to back down. And with Egypt now divided in a manner that seems almost unprecedented, further bloodshed seems sadly inevitable.
Follow John on Twitter: @JM_Beck
More stories from Egypt:
WATCH – Egypt After Morsi