CAIRO — The grim accounting of death took on a ceremony of its own at the Cairo morgue where the victims of Monday’s clash between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood were taken for the official tally.
Orange ambulances lined up in front of the squalid morgue, each holding at least one body. As soon as doctors had finished examining one body, morgue workers would call out the victim’s name. His family members would come forward, their already heightened emotions peaking as they picked up the bare wooden coffin and lifted it onto their shoulders.
The family members’ wails, coupled with their slow procession out of the government building, signaled the next paramedic to pull forward and unload another body through the front doors. One more body had moved out, making room for one more to come in.
The scene repeated throughout the day, 10 times in the span of two hours, until in the midst of madness it provided a sense of order.
Nobody could say by midday how many bodies had come through. The woman in charge of such information said she was too busy recording the names of the dead to make a tally. Egyptian health officials said that at least 51 had died, but the steady steam of dead and mourning at the morgue suggested that the number might be much higher.
Egypt is engulfed in political strife, between supporters of former President Mohammed Morsi and those who endorse the military’s decision last week to remove the increasingly unpopular and ineffectual leader. But the dawn outbreak of violence Monday at a sit-in staged by Morsi supporters shocked this hardened population, which has endured daily clashes for eight days.
The Morsi backers said they were simply praying when the army tried to clear the area, violently. The military said the protesters outside the Republican Guard headquarters, where many think Morsi is being held, had fired first.
Either way, the protesters bore the brunt of the losses. The military said its side had lost two police officers and a soldier, while the Morsi side lost four dozen or more, their losses taxing the capacity of the morgue, where every refrigerated bay was filled with a victim of violence.
As families carried their loved ones away, they prayed for mercy and cursed Abdel-Fattah el Sissi, the minister of defense and the head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, as a “killer.”
Trash, linen to wrap the bodies and mourners lined the walls. Among them was Azza Khalifa, 40, whose face, all but the eyes, was covered with a traditional niqab. She rocked as she waited for her husband’s body to be released. “He was praying. Why would they do that?” she said repeatedly. Her 14-year-old son, Khalid, sat next to her and said nothing at all.
“Your time had come. You left me,” his mother kept saying. “Your time had come. . . . ”
Even at the morgue, politics were everywhere. One man who came in to identify his relative made the mistake of criticizing the Muslim Brotherhood, the secretive organization through which Morsi ascended to the presidency.
“Where are the Brotherhood leaders? They are only concerned about power and we are dying here,” he said.
The crowd surrounded him and yelled epithets. Then they began beating him.
“What are you saying?” they screamed.
Then all was forgiven. Those who were beating him kissed him on the head. And went back to waiting for their dead.
Ismail is a McClatchy special correspondent.