The corpses emerge from a field hospital near the Rabea al-Adeweya mosque every few minutes in a grim routine. First, a man on a megaphone strides purposefully out into the sun, announcing the name of the dead to the waiting throng of mourners — the Grand Marshall of a macabre parade. Behind him come the medical workers carrying the body on a fluorescent orange stretcher. The white shroud is invariably splattered with blood, the name and hometown of the deceased is scrawled across the front. Hands and feet have been tied together to prevent limbs from flopping out. Two lines of men with linked arms form a thin passageway through the crowd that leads to a waiting ambulance. Pleas to God fill the air, rising to a crescendo of grief and anger as the body passes through. The commotion subsides until the next body is brought out, and the scene repeated.
This was Cairo on a scorching Saturday morning after predawn clashes between supporters of deposed president Mohammed Morsi and police and armed men that left scores of protesters dead and hundreds injured in the deadliest attack by security services since Mubarak's ouster. The Health Ministry puts the official toll at 74. The Muslim Brotherhood says 66 were killed and an additional 61 are "clinically dead."
The bloodshed plunged Egypt into a deepening crisis with a highly polarized population, an unresolved standoff between the army and the Muslim Brotherhood, spiraling levels of violence that have left over 200 people dead since Morsi's ouster and a coercive security apparatus reconstituting itself under the guise of a "war on terror."
The clashes began late Friday evening after hundreds of Morsi's supporters began a march from the outskirts of a mass sit-in in Nasr City, a neighborhood in eastern Cairo where they have maintained a month-long vigil. Accounts differ as to how the violence began. In a televised press conference, Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim — whom Morsi appointed — said security forces fired tear gas to stop the ousted president's supporters from blocking the October 6 bridge, a major artery that runs through the capital, and claimed police officers sustained injuries from live fire and birdshot. He absolved his men of any responsibility and insisted that, "We never, as police, pointed any firearms at the chest of any demonstrator."
The protesters, many of them wounded, tell a different story. Several claimed in interviews that they did little to provoke the security forces who began firing tear gas canisters as the crowd approached, and that they responded by hurling back rocks at police. After around two hours of skirmishes, the police and other armed men opened fire on the crowds with live ammunition and shotguns, the protesters say.
"I was shocked by the level of violence," says Ali Sabry, a 32-year-old Morsi supporter from Benha, a Nile Delta city north of Cairo. His clothes are covered in dirt and blood. "Lots of my colleagues died in front of me. I carried at least three or four martyrs, all of them were shot, one was hit in the throat, another in the forehead."
Fearing an all out raid on the sit-in, Morsi supporters built brick walls on the street to prevent security forces from entering. The battle raged for hours along Nasr street, a wide thoroughfare that runs in front of the military viewing stand where President Sadat was assassinated in 1981.
Doctors at the field hospital say they were overwhelmed by the number of casualties that flooded in as the clashes intensified through the early morning. Dr. Mostafa Talaat, a volunteer medic, said most of the gunshot wounds he tended to were in the head, neck and chest. "They were shooting to kill and it seems they used snipers because many of the gunshot wounds had a downward trajectory," indicating they were shot from above, he said.
The clashes came after a day of dueling rallies on Friday across the country for and against the ousted president in response to a televised speech on June 24 by the head of the army. Sporting dark sunglasses and full military regalia, Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, called on Egyptians to rally across the country to give him a popular mandate to confront "violence and terrorism," widely seen as a reference to Morsi's supporters.
"Al-Sisi's speech gave him popular cover to do what he wants to us, to attack us with impunity" says Ziyad Sherif, a 19-year-old Morsi supporter who was shot in the neck with birdshot in the police clashes. "How can the head of the army ask one section of society to mandate him to kill the other?"
Sisi's address was viewed as a prelude to a harsher crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and the forcible breakup of their mass sit-ins in Giza and Nasr City. The group has already seen its leaders imprisoned and charged, assets frozen, sympathetic TV stations shut down and protesters killed by the dozen.
Over the past four weeks, Morsi supporters have committed violence of their own. Armed pro-Morsi demonstrators have clashed with local residents across the country resulting in numerous deaths and injuries and leaving neighborhoods seething with rage. There have also been accounts of torture and abuse of "infiltrators" at pro-Morsi sit-ins. Meanwhile, militants in the Sinai Peninsula have carried out daily attacks against security forces, killing at least 20 policemen and soldiers.
Meanwhile, sympathy from those who vocally opposed police brutality in the past has been tempered by the fact that the Brotherhood ignored rampant police torture and killing of protesters while they were in power — either in the presidency or parliament — choosing instead to promote officers and label demonstrators opposing Morsi's rule as thugs and criminals.
Meanwhile, State media and private television channels and newspapers have helped whip up growing anti-Muslim Brotherhood sentiment, demonizing Morsi's supporters as terrorists hellbent on violence, diseased with scabies, and infiltrated by Palestinians and Syrians, stoking xenophobia.
On Friday, several major television stations cancelled regularly scheduled drama series and entertainment shows that follow Iftar — the sunset meal breaking the fast in Ramadan — and are a staple in Egyptian society, to cover the pro-military rallies and encourage people to join in. Tamarod, the petition gathering campaign that helped orchestrate Morsi's overthrow, backed the army's call as did the National Salvation Front, a loose coalition of non-Islamist political groups. Yet some critics of Morsi and the Brotherhood did reject the pro-military rallies — such as the April 6 Youth Movement and several prominent revolutionary activists — though they were a minority.