When the news came through yesterday that police and army troops had moved in on supporters of Egypt’s former President Mohamed Morsi, it didn't take anyone by surprise. The shock lay in the uncompromising speed at which the authorities moved. By nightfall in Cairo on Wednesday, the death toll stood at well over 200. The country has seen plenty of political violence since tailspinning into the first of three recent revolutionary cycles in 2011, but the past month has seen the bloodshed ratchet up another notch. What I witnessed in the capital on Wednesday took things to a whole new level of brutality.
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 threatened 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 6AM Wednesday 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.
On Wednesday morning, dozens of distraught families gathered outside the besieged sit-in. "I left overnight so I could finally get some sleep," said Mai Arafa, a young pharmacist who had spent the whole week inside Rabaa. "I left my fiancé. He says he won't leave." She told me that at that stage she was ready to join him if she could find a way to re-enter 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 that polarisation was evident on the streets of Cairo on Wednesday. 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 2PM 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 they had made good on that promise. As women and children huddled under the blue awnings that stretched 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 rumoured that the demonstrators were hoarding handguns in preparation for this kind of onslaught. But the only weapons I saw 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, but they had little choice but to power through. 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 fell on one of Egypt’s bloodiest days, the fighting continued into the night.
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