Friday, August 16, 2013

Showdown in Cairo Square Leaves More Than 30 Dead - Wall Street Journal

By Maria Abi-Habib

CAIRO--Thousands of Islamist demonstrators who massed on central Cairo's Ramses Square met with deadly force Friday afternoon, turning a nearby mosque into a makeshift morgue where medics tried to revive shot protesters and people clambered up bloodstained steps to view at least 31 bodies that were laid out inside.

Skirmishes continued in the afternoon around the square, where Muslim Brotherhood supporters converged in what they called a Day of Rage to mourn those killed Wednesday, when a government crackdown on supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi sparked violence that left more than 600 people dead around the country.

Late Friday afternoon, after several thousand separate Muslim Brotherhood marches convened on Ramses Square, other marchers could be seen on two nearby bridges, attempting to reach the area. One of the protest groups appeared to come under fire from buildings in the neighborhood, and could be seen throwing Molotov cocktails.

The dozens of marches around Cairo were the catalyst for a deepening of the conflict between protesters and Egypt's security forces, which were issued live ammunition and orders to protect the nation and government buildings from what the military-led government call "terrorist" acts.

Security forces reaffirmed Friday that they would deal harshly with any violations of the law, according to a statement that ran on Egyptian state television. Police and security officials in armored vehicles had taken up positions around government offices and ministries.

State television reported that at least 34 people have died in violence between security forces and protesters across the country. The government didn't offer any statistics about a death toll in the capital, where the largest protests occurred. The Muslim Brotherhood, meanwhile, said at least 80 people died so far Friday.

In Alexandria, Egypt's second-largest city, several thousand protesters marched down the seaside avenue, but no violence was reported.

The Brotherhood's leaders have pressed its supporters to re-establish a sustained protest camp. Its ability to do so will provide an indication of the group's resilience after it suffered multiple blows since last month, when the army, backed by secular politicians, deposed the popularly elected Mr. Morsi, and imprisoned senior leaders of the movement. This week's move against two pro-Morsi protest camps left hundreds dead by government estimates-- and even more by the Brotherhood's own count.

The group's top leaders remained largely out of sight Friday. The funeral for Asmaa Al Biltagy, the daughter of a senior official in the Brotherhood's political party, attracted none of the group's leading figures. Several top Brotherhood officials remain under arrest.

"We know there are snipers and they would like to kill the leaders, so we are appearing only in specific places and things like that," said one leader.

People close to the group say that the once rigidly hierarchical organization is floundering. But a clutch of Brotherhood leaders met Friday to debate their "alternatives and next steps," said the leader. One proposal on the table, said this person and some protesters, is to call for nationwide civil disobedience, a walk-out from work that would put added pressure on the state to respond to the pro-Morsi protesters demands. It is unclear, though, whether such a move would add to public antagonism against the protesters.

One of the marches that reached Ramses Square on Friday afternoon started after noon prayers at the Nour Mosque in the Abassiya district of Cairo. There, Brotherhood supporters mourned those who were killed earlier in the week during the clashes at Raba'a al Adiwiya and Nahda squares.

"We hope for quick investigations about the massacres that happened, or else curses from heavens and earth will fall on us," the imam of the mosque said over a loudspeaker during the noon prayer service.

"God, please make Egypt an Islamic state, support freedom on earth, destroy tyrants and destroy the media that is supported by tyrants," the imam continued.

In a polarized Egypt, such sentiments meet stiff opposition at close range. Residents of Abassiya, which is also home to Egypt's Ministry of Defense, grumbled about the Brotherhood.

"Tell Obama the truth--we don't accept this terrorism!" said one onlooker.

After Friday prayers finished, about 300 Brotherhood supporters descended the Nour Mosque's steep steps to march toward Ramses Square, a few miles away.

"Either we die like they did [in Raba'a] or we get revenge for our martyrs!" the crowd chanted. "Down with the military, the police are thugs!"

"It's going to be Islamic despite the secularists!" the crowd continued.

Some secularists, too, joined the protests, concerned over the preservation of a democratic system they shed blood to achieve during the 2011 revolution.

"I don't support the Brotherhood, but my vote was violated," said Youssef Mahmoud, a clean-shaven 23-year-old student. "I came here for democracy."

The group from Nour Mosque reached Ramses Square, joining other streams to form a crowd of several thousand people. At around 2 p.m., as part of the crowd moved toward a police station on the square, gunfire could be heard. The crowd scattered, with some injured with what appeared to be birdshot.

Security forces also fired tear gas toward the protesters, who started arming themselves with pieces of metal and stones.

The crowd turned on a man in civilian clothes, alleging he was with Egyptian security forces and had shot into the crowd. Several protesters were seen hitting him with poles while others tried to protect him. His bloodied body was retrieved by some protesters. It was unclear whether he was dead, or where he was being taken.

On the May 15th Bridge, near Ramses Square, security forces fired tear gas at crowds of marchers who were attempting to reach the square.

By around 3:30 p.m., the nearby Al Fatah Mosque had received dozens of injured and dead. At least 31 bodies, many apparently dead from gunshot wounds, could be seen laid out on the mosque's green-carpeted floor. More bodies were brought in on planks or the seats of wooden benches, which had been turned into emergency gurneys.

Volunteer medical staff struggled to get dozens of injured out of the square, where they could receive medical attention. Fights broke out at the mosque's entrances as friends and family members tried to enter to check if their loved ones were there.

Inside the mosque, volunteer doctors performed simple surgeries or administered CPR. The white coats and abayas of the doctors and nurses were stained with blood and iodine. Piles of medicine lay atop two broad tables.

Medics administered CPR to a man who appeared to have been shot in the head. Cotton swabs ringed his forehead, soaked in blood. After five minutes, they gave up.

Nearby, Ahmed Tharwat, 23 years old, cried as he looked at the body of his dead friend, covered with a white sheet but his face exposed. Mr. Tharwat said he and the friend, Mohammed, had been helping a man wounded by birdshot, creating makeshift tourniquets out of ripped shirts. Mohammed turned to him and said, "I'm going to go become a martyr," Ahmed recalled. Shortly afterward, Mohammed was shot and taken to the mosque, dead upon arrival.

"They are mercilessly shooting us," Mr. Tharwat said. "They are killing our best people."

-Margaret Coker and Matt Bradley contributed to this article.

Write to Maria Abi-Habib at
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