AFRICANGLOBE – Egyptian troops staged a crackdown on protesters that turned deadly Wednesday morning in efforts to clear two anti-government sit-ins in Cairo, a development that observers worry could plunge the already divided country further into uncontrollable violence.
The Ministry of Health raised the toll to 95 killed and 874 injured in violence in Cairo and elsewhere as the president declared a state of emergency across the country, giving the armed forces responsibility for “taking all measures to protect public and private property and the lives of citizens,” according to a statement read on state television.
The Freedom and Justice Party, the political arm of ousted President Mohammed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, said the field hospitals the Brotherhood has set up in the two squares have recorded more than 300 deaths.
The storming of Raba’a al Adiwiya and Nahda squares paralyzed Cairo, with major roads closed and tanks lining the streets as the government braced for a reaction from Muslim Brotherhood supporters. Brotherhood leaders had vowed to send their supporters to march on government buildings if the sit-ins were attacked.
Images from state television and provided by the Brotherhood’s press office showed smoke filling the air, helicopters circling the sky, government snipers on roofs and scores of protesters lined up against cars as they were arrested by police. They also showed bloody bodies being taken into a Brotherhood field hospital set up in Raba’a. Images were accompanied by a bar reading, “The peaceful dispersal of the sit-ins.”
According to government news agency MENA, 200 protesters were arrested at both camps for possessing weapons.
Security forces fired tear gas and live ammunition at unarmed protesters including women. One older woman who had been tear gassed screamed, “God help us! We are unarmed!”
Ambulances were unable to get through to Raba’a due to thick plumes of tear gas. The wounded were instead being brought to the ambulances on motorcycle.
“They’re killing people! Go take photos!” one motorcyclists screamed while taking his finger and making a slitting gesture across his throat.
The Egyptian army blocked reporters from going to the scene, violating earlier promises the police made to invite the press and human rights activists to observe the clearing of the sit-ins, amid concerns of police brutality.
“Forces have exercised self restraint and professionalism in their actions, this is reflected in the low number of injuries. The government reiterates that it will stand firmly against the attempts of some elements to attack public buildings and vital institutions and police stations,” a statement from the Egyptian government that was read on state television said. “The government is committed to moving forward with implementing the future road map in a way that does not marginalize any group.”
Human rights groups have condemned the brute force Egyptian police have used when clearing demonstrations. Human Rights Watch said at least 130 protesters had died in standoffs with the police in the past month and called on state security forces to refrain from violence.
A soldier with a flash grenade in his hand and sweating profusely blocked reporters from heading to the scene at one road to Raba’a, which soldiers and riot police wearing balaclavas and gas masks blocked off.
“You can’t go in. We’re shooting at them, they’re shooting at us. Everyone is shooting at everyone,” the soldier said, clutching his flash grenade with the instructions on how to detonate it.
Cairo’s streets were fiercely divided Wednesday morning in what emerged as a battle for Egypt’s political soul and whether the country would move toward a secular or Islamic state.
Secular Egyptians clashed with Brotherhood protesters on the streets around the Raba’a sit-in.
Supporters of the Brotherhood heeded the leadership’s calls and poured into the streets, clashing with security forces and their secular civilian neighbors as they tried to move toward Raba’a and reinforce the sit-in there.
“With our blood and with our soul we will sacrifice for Islam and bring Sisi down,” protesters screamed and clapped on the street, referring to Gen. Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, the leader of the armed forces who orchestrated the coup that overthrew Mr. Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood-led government.
Pro-government supporters took to the streets to support security forces as they blocked Brotherhood protesters from joining the sit-in.
“Sisi! Sisi! The army, the people, one hand!” pro-government supporters screamed.
A Muslim Brotherhood pickup truck with a shot and wounded protester tried to navigate the streets but were stopped by a mob of pro-government people from the neighborhood.
“I’m going to the protest. God be a witness, God be our witness for Muslims,” said one older woman who was being blocked by soldiers from joining the sit-in.
“Europeans understand democracy but Muslims don’t,” said Mahmoud Sayed, a 35-year-old protester. “I’m not with the Muslim brotherhood and I’m not with the government. But democracy here doesn’t work and I’m here to support the innocent people being killed.”
Mr. Sayed said he had come out to the streets after he heard live ammunition outside his home.
“My son is in Raba’a and I cannot get in to help him,” said Hussein Ibrahim, a supporter of the protests. “We have no guns, all we have is our bare chests. This is a coup and in any other country people would stand up to this. And Obama is talking about democracy? He is a hypocrite. They are killing us with American aid money,” he said pointing to a military helicopter in the sky.
Egypt’s military receives more than $1 billion annually in U.S. aid.
Outside of Cairo, human rights groups reported several attacks on churches and Coptic Christians.
Churches were set on fire in the town of Sohag and the village of Delga in Minya, south of Cairo, while other churches in the Abou Helal district of Minya and in the city of Suez were also attacked, according to Ishak Ibrahim, a researcher with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.
Marches by pro-Morsi demonstrators in some places were also accompanied by the vandalizing of some shops and businesses belonging to Copts, he said.
“We’ve seen attacks like this before, but not of this severity and coordination,” said Mr. Ibrahim. “There have been attacks before on an individual level, but these are mobs attacking simultaneously in governorates and these attacks are directly related to the dispersals of the sit-ins.”
By: Maria Abi-Habib and Leila Elmergawi