CAIRO — Egypt’s fragile political condition sank toward critical Monday after the military opened fire and killed dozens of Islamists who were demanding the return to office of deposed President Mohammed Morsi. It was the worst political violence in the country since the demonstrations two and a half years ago that led to the resignation of Hosni Mubarak.
Adly Mansour, the Constitutional Supreme Court judge whom the military named president last week to replace Morsi, tried to defuse tension by announcing that a new constitution would be submitted for approval to the people within four months and elections to select a new Parliament would take place by February. A presidential vote would follow a week after Parliament convened.
But the promise of a quick return to elected leadership seemed unlikely to assuage the bitterness of Morsi supporters who were targeted by live gunfire outside the headquarters of the Republican Guard in eastern Cairo before dawn, killing an estimated 51.
The Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice political party summoned its supporters to demonstrate Tuesday, and Brotherhood members vowed to avenge the deaths, a portent of what’s likely to be protracted conflict between the millions who backed the military’s removal of Morsi and those who consider it an illegal coup that removed a democratically elected leader. The Brotherhood said it wouldn’t stop its demonstrations or consider reconciliation until Morsi was back in office.
The military, meanwhile, defended its use of live gunfire, claiming that hundreds of Morsi supporters had opened fire first as they tried to force their way into the Republican Guard facilities, where many think Morsi is being held. It said two police officers and a soldier had died in the attack. At least 435 people were injured in the melee.
The top cleric for the Sunni Islamic world warned of potential civil war. Sheikh Ahmed al Tayeb, the leader of Cairo’s al Azhar mosque, issued yet another call for peace but couldn’t hide his frustration. He announced that he’d go into seclusion until the crisis ended.
Before Monday’s clashes, most of the violence since Morsi was removed from office last Wednesday had been between partisans of the two sides, with 40 killed and 1,000 injured.
But Monday’s events stunned even the most jaded here. For the first time, Egypt’s revered military had opened fire on its citizens and caused many casualties, and many feared there would be no preventing further bloodshed. The Nour Party, the only Islamist body represented in the transitional government, resigned from the government in protest.
Reaction in the streets of Cairo underscored the high emotions that have characterized the conflict.
“Kill them all. Why can’t they accept that we don’t want them!” screamed a fruit vendor named Mohammed, referring to Morsi’s supporters as he watched television news accounts of what took place.
The scene of the shooting was horrific. Rivers of blood ran through the street, which was littered with the signs of panic: eyeglasses, shoes and clothing discarded in the rush to find safety. The area smelled of blood.
The bodies of the dead overwhelmed morgues, and hospitals were hard-pressed to deal with the hundreds of wounded.
The army and the Muslim Brotherhood offered different versions of events and sought to prove that they weren’t responsible for the bloodshed.
The military released aerial shots of civilians launching rocks and gunfire at soldiers. The upper-left corner of the screen showed three times for the videos – 4 a.m., 5:55 a.m. and 6:24 a.m.
The Brotherhood released videos of their injured being treated in overcrowded hospitals.
While the sets of videos showed each side attacking the other, neither definitively showed how the attacks started.
At a news conference, military spokesman Ahmed Mohammed Ali said protesters had initiated the battle, attacking the Republican Guard building and troops stationed there, firing live ammunition.
“Any law in the world allows soldiers to defend Egyptian security when confronted with live fire,” Ali said.
Supporters of Morsi, who’ve been staging a sit-in the eastern Cairo district of Rabaa since June 28, a few hundred yards from the Republican Guard building, said the armed forces began attacking them in an effort to clear the area as they were praying.
Witnesses said the fighting began with tear gas, followed by gunfire.
A McClatchy reporter saw bullet holes in the nearby mosque, which was filled with Morsi supporters. The mosque was locked, and many feared leaving.
Ahmed Abdullah, 40, was among those injured, struck with rubber bullets in the leg. Standing outside the mosque, Abdullah said he’d tried to go to the hospital but an ambulance worker warned him: “If I take you, the police will arrest you.”
“The officer was laughing while shooting at me and others as if he were hunting for birds,” said Abdullah, an oil worker.
State television displayed videos zeroing in on attackers shooting at the army and wounded soldiers being carried away.
The military said in a statement that "terrorist groups" had tried to storm the Republican Guard headquarters and military personnel had protected the entrance. The military said it had arrested 200 protesters and that dozens of its soldiers were wounded, six critically.
Doctors treating the wounded at the Medical Insurance clinic in Nasr City, a government-run facility, called it “a massacre,” saying most of the patients had been wounded in the head, neck and chest. A growing list of the dead and injured was posted at the entrance to the clinic, and people searched for the names of loved ones. Emotions ran high as scores of relatives wailed, read the Quran and fought one another in a state of frustration. Overwhelmed doctors said there wasn’t enough room to treat all the wounded.
“The injuries in the head were severe. I saw the brain out of the head in a lot of cases,” said Mohammed Abdel Rabouh, 23, the head of nurses at the hospital. As he spoke in the clinic’s emergency room, he brandished a bullet removed from one of the wounded.
Various political and religious figures called for an end to clashes. "Violence begets violence and should be strongly condemned. Independent investigation a must. Peaceful transition is only way," Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Peace laureate and leader of the largest opposition group, the National Salvation Front, said on his official Twitter account.
But the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party promised to keep fighting.
"This has never happened before in the history of the Egyptian army," the party said in a statement. "Perhaps there are still some wise men in the army who can put a stop to this behavior.”
Ismail is a McClatchy special correspondent.