At a little before seven am yesterday morning, police and military stormed the two sit-ins where supporters of ousted Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi have been encamped for the last six weeks. Several times in the last few weeks the military-appointed government has announced its intention to break up the sit-ins, so what happened yesterday was not wholly unexpectedly. Egypt has been watching and waiting in the days since the holy month of Ramadan ended, as Prime Minister Beblawi announced that the dispersal would come after the month of fasting. But the extent and brutality of the violence was far worse than I, at least, had expected. Here is what I saw:
The military blares Quranic recitation as protesters clamor to be let in to the Rabaa el Adaweya sit-in and the hospital nearby where many of the wounded, we hear, are being taken. But the soldiers at the barricade aren’t letting anyone in who doesn't carry a medical ID, not even families of the wounded and certainly not journalists. Ibrahim Ashraf, a young doctor who had been on his way to work at a different hospital when he found the road blocked and was unable to get though, deliberates at the barricade about whether or not to go in to try to help wounded protestors. He wants to but is obviously intimidated by the soldiers and sounds of tear gas canisters and guns being fired inside.
The soldiers are not letting people out either.
Mohamed Ahmed Maher, a 30 year old political science student at the barricade tells me that “Egypt must get out from under military rule” and that “his identity is Muslim before Egyptian.”
Another young man with blood on his shirt approaches and says, “This is the first time I’ve smelled tear gas.” He says he’s not Muslim Brotherhood but has friends inside. He says the protesters will stay at the barricade until they get their fellow protesters out. He will not give his name but says he is 23 years old.
I reach the supposedly “safe exit” on Nasr Street. There is a line of soldiers that spans the street; in front of them is a line of riot police armed with plastic shields. There is a narrower passageway on one side where protesters were supposed to be able to come out freely. But by the time I get here, however, there is another line of fighting at the bridge about 800 feet away: Morsi supporters are on top of the bridge; the police are below it, advancing on another group of Morsi supporters between the two police lines.
There is nothing safe about the safe exit.
In trying to find another way into the sit-in, I happen upon clashes between security forces and protesters. As I look on, a group of riot police is suddenly rushing toward our car, carrying one of their number with blood smeared brightly across the top of his head. He has been hit by a brick thrown by a pro-Morsi protester. The police commandeer our car, and my wonderful driver Mina drives them to a hospital nearby. After a few minutes, he returns to pick us up and takes us to the hospital where the officer is being treated. In the meantime, we discover that almost all the shops and restaurants in the area have had their electricity cut.
When we arrive at the hospital, Dr. Abel Reza Mustafa el Morsi informs us that he has treated 11 or 12 police and army officers here today, mostly with shotgun pellet wounds. He says that the wounds often involved many pellets, suggesting that the guns had been fired from close range. He has also treated about 6 protesters, 5 men and one woman, but most of the pro-Morsi injured are either at the sit-in field hospitals or other public facilities nearby.
“So, can you take us back?” A policeman asks Mina as he emerges from one of the exam rooms. Mina agrees, once again allowing his car to become a target for potential violence if a pro-Morsi protester were to see him driving policemen around. The three young men, including the one who had been wounded, sit in the back. All three are 23 years old and from different governorates in the Nile Delta. They say they found out at 2 am last night that they would be breaking up the sit-ins this morning.
After several hours we find an unguarded alley and a path into the sit-in. Behind us, people bang pieces of metal together, a warning to others that security forces are advancing, that danger approaches. We continue walking away. Along the way, we meet a woman from the neighborhood who says she has seen many people trying to find a way in to bring their families home from the protests. Most have been unsuccessful. A lot of people are trapped.
We are told there are government snipers shooting protesters in the alley in front of the field hospital as they try to enter it. A man tells us to follow him as he holds a large metal tray between us and the line of sight of nearby buildings. Running fast and low to the ground, we make it to the entrance of the field hospital.
It is a grisly place; one of the protesters takes us to the makeshift morgue made of two-by-fours and blue tarpaulins, where there are 35 corpses laid out. Each one is wrapped in a white sheet, tied at both ends with his or her name and home governorate written on it in black marker. The reek of tear gas is everywhere and I am grateful to the man who poured vinegar on my scarf on the way in. A volunteer tells me they need bandages and eye patches and dressing.
I make my way back to the hospital through mud and water and distraught protesters, many wearing gas masks.
Inside the field hospital there are more dead. On the first floor we enter, I count 26 bodies. The daughter of Mohamed el Beltagy, a prominent member of the Brotherhood leadership who has thus far eluded arrest, was killed when she took a live bullet to the chest. Her name is Asmaa. She was 17 years old.
Yehia Mekeya, the doctor in charge, says that tens of thousands were wounded and 2,300 killed. I cannot verify that figure---or anything like it---and the Ministry of Health says that there were almost 200 dead, but I see 68 bodies with my own eyes over the course of the day. People walking around have their names scrawled on their arms so that people can identify them if they are killed.
The wounded lie on the floors of hallways slick with mud and blood, some on stretchers, some with their heads in the laps of friends or family members, who hold a bag of fluids for their makeshift IVs. One man pushes the hair off the forehead of a friend. Another squats on the floor intermittently calling on God and saying, “this is not our army.” Another weeps, and between sobbing breaths, “what is this democracy? Why are they shooting us?” It is hot. Foreheads stream with sweat, and on the lower floors, the smell of tear gas torments the wounded. The number of doctors is small, but many protesters have come to help as volunteers, carrying the dead and wounded, cleaning the floor, cutting bandages.
A man lies dead on the floor, his head in a pool of blood. His wife, wearing full-face veil (niqab), takes off her shoes, sits down next to him, and takes his hand. She holds it and caresses it as she prays. Later, I look over and she is tapping her other hand lightly on his chest to the rhythm of her tearful prayers. His name is Alaa Mohamed Mustafa Mohamed, and people in the room tell me he was killed near the edge of the sit-in that was supposed to be the "safe exit."
Several hours after we leave, that same hospital is reportedly broken up by police with AK47s. This evening I read that afterward people were running down the streets carrying the wounded in blankets.
We move to another field hospital inside a mosque that has been converted for the purpose. We run across another street battle to get there, faces burning from tear gas. A man spits a mouthful of Pepsi in my face to ease the sting. It works. Inside, people say that nine dead were brought there. Four are left. A son helps carry the dead body of his father. These are all people who had been killed outside the sit-in. A volunteer goes around putting moistened masks on our faces as the tear gas gets worse.
Suddenly things seem to escalate. "Takbeer! Allahu Akbar!" There is a loud banging on the door. It is time to leave, as a state of emergency is announced.
Many say that the government waited until today to break up the sit-ins, as it’s the day after ex-generals were appointed as governors in many of the governorates.
It isn't just the army and police that are out of control today. Islamists burn police stations and churches across Egypt today. Three dedicated people made this list of the incidents. There is tremendous ugliness and cruelty and tremendous bravery and kindness.
A curfew is in place and I have never seen Cairo so quiet. I am at a loss to understand any of it. None of it had to be this way.