Zakaria Ibrahim was only several yards away when his younger brother was shot dead. It was just before dawn on July 8, and the two men were outside the Republican Guard headquarters in Cairo, along with hundreds of other supporters of deposed President Mohammed Morsi. They stood in neat rows as they observed early morning prayers, facing away from the phalanx of armed soldiers guarding the gates.
They were still praying when the chaos began. Zakaria remembers the tear gas first, repeated volleys of hissing canisters that filled the air with poisonous white clouds. Then came the crackle of machine-gun fire and shotguns. He ran from the army bullets, blinded and spluttering, unaware that his 24-year-old brother, Gamal, had been hit in the chest with a live round that exited through his back and left him dead on the street.
“I only found out he had been killed hours later, when someone who saw his name on the casualty list called me,” Zakaria says, holding back tears as he waits for his brother’s body in the courtyard of a squalid state morgue. The two brothers had come to Cairo from Beni Sueif, their hometown in southern Egypt, ten days earlier to take part in a sit-in at Rabaa al-Adeweya mosque to support Morsi in what would become the final days of his year-long presidency.
After the military deposed Morsi on July 3 following unprecedented protests against his rule, the Muslim Brotherhood and other allies have continued to hold demonstrations calling for his reinstatement, rejecting his ouster as a coup and refusing to recognize the new army-led transition. Meanwhile, security forces detained dozens of the groups members—including much of its leadership—and shut down its media outlets.
The crackdown culminated in the army assault on July 8, though how the violence began is a point of fierce contention.
Pro-Morsi demonstrators were holding vigil outside the Republican Guard building for three days, believing that Morsi was being held inside. They insist they did nothing to provoke the army’s assault.
The military says it came under attack from armed assailants who tried to storm the facility yet it provided no conclusive evidence to back up its claims. Its denial of wrongdoing and screening of videos recalled earlier press conferences during the first military-led transition in the aftermath of the killing of twenty-seven protesters in October 2011 and the killing of sixteen protesters the following month.
Regardless of how the incident started, it ended in a bloodbath. At least fifty-one Morsi supporters were killed, almost all hit by gunfire, and over 400 wounded, according to the Health Ministry, making it the single deadliest day of state violence since the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak. Dr. Kamal Nady, a doctor at a field hospital the morning of the attack, said most of the wounds were to the head and chest. “They were intending to kill,” he says.
The violence has damaged the political climate (which was already polarized) beyond repair—at least in the near term—and has alienated the Brotherhood even further, severely dimming the prospect of any kind of inclusive and consensual transitional process.
“I never expected the army could do this, but now my view of them has changed, there is blood between us,” says Zakaria. “I will bury my brother and return to the sit-in.”
Fifteen local human rights groups strongly condemned the “excessive use of force by army and security forces” in a joint statement. Security forces said one soldier and two policemen were also killed.
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State television and anti-Brotherhood private channels faithfully parroted the army’s claims, repeatedly airing footage of Morsi’s supporters attacking the military, referring to them as terrorists, and neglecting to show scenes of the dozens of casualties.
“The lying media says we were trying to storm the building, we will never be as strong as them and we know this. Why would we attack them?” asks Mohamed Hassan, a 36-year-old Morsi supporter from Beheira, a governorate in the Nile Delta. His shirt is bloodied and his chest bandaged over wounds he received from birdshot and rubber bullets. “We’ve been here peacefully for days, why would we attack now?”
Meanwhile, the Brotherhood pointed to the killings as further proof of their oppression at the hands of the military and security forces, a stark contrast to the group’s stances after Mubarak’s ouster when they repeatedly looked the other way following incidents of state brutality, often going a step further and vilifying protesters as paid thugs. In January, when more than fifty people were killed in clashes with security forces in Port Said, Morsi himself saluted the police and army for “their efforts to protect the country” in a nationally televised address.
The Brotherhood has also engaged in violence of its own following Morsi’s overthrow. The joint statement of Egyptian human rights groups also condemned “the ongoing incitement to violence and killing by the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters, and their encouragement of widespread clashes to further complicate the political scene.”
On July 5, pro-Morsi demonstrators marched to downtown Cairo, near Tahrir Square—one of the epicenters of anti-Morsi demonstrations—a provocative move that sparked fierce clashes. The two sides battles for hours with rocks, shields, fireworks, Molotov cocktails, birdshot and guns. The nightmare of mob violence, mayhem and paranoia took hold of the streets. In one incident, a local resident came running down a bridge to escape a pro-Morsi crowd only to be set upon by a mob of his neighbors, who suspected him of being a Brotherhood member and continued to beat him before realizing he was one of their own.
The army and security forces stationed nearby did nothing to stop the violence, intervening only after the clashes had largely subsided. “This violence suits the army just fine,” says Ahmed, a car mechanic downtown who says he is against both the Brotherhood and the army. “We kill each other and that allows them to come in and do what they want in the name of security. It bolsters the case for military rule.”
At least thirty-five people were killed in clashes across the country that night, including four residents of Manial—a large island in the Nile, south of Tahrir—all shot with live ammunition in clashes with Morsi supporters. The following afternoon, the residents of the neighborhood gathered to mourn at Salah El-Din mosque. Grief stricken and furious they marched through the streets with the four coffins held aloft, chanting angrily at the Brotherhood. Shopkeepers and residents came out on the sidewalk, many wept as the march passed by.
Chaos gripped the funeral march when it reached a crowded intersection. One young man, overcome with rage, stopped a passing motorist who had the shorn mustache and long beard of an ultraconservative Salafi. The man pulled out a pistol and held it to the driver’s head, screaming at him to get out of the car before his friends held him back. The driver managed to speed away as several mourners smashed his car windows while another tried to reach in through the window and tase him.
“I am filled with rage and with great sadness,” says Ali Sayed, a Manial resident who witnessed the scene. “We need justice.”
In Egypt, the cycle of violence continues to escalate, from the state and from its citizens. Many are hoping that Wednesday’s start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan—when observers fast from sunrise to sunset—will help calm the streets.