In Egypt, Islamists call for uprising after military opens fire
CAIRO — With its people more polarized than ever and the military once again struggling to impose calm, Egypt’s downward spiral appears to have no bottom.
At least 51 people were killed Monday when army and police forces opened fire on a sit-in during morning prayers. The protesters outside Republican Guard headquarters said they were peacefully calling for the release of the Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, whom the military deposed last week. The army said it responded to a “terror group” firing weapons and hurling Molotov cocktails.
Stunned but not deterred by the violence, the Islamists quickly called for a national uprising.
“We are very patient. We Egyptians built the pyramids,” said Essam Erian, deputy head of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing. “Do you know how many people died building the pyramids? How many died digging the Suez Canal?”
The two sides’ differing views of the violence were a chilling suggestion of what Egypt may yet endure. The military crackdown has been fierce and swift. But the army so far has been unable to patch together a coalition government to replace Morsi and the Brotherhood. Without it, critics say, the army resorted to excessive force — as it did two years ago when it stepped in after the fall of President Hosni Mubarak.
The army’s actions early Monday may also have nudged two Islamic adversaries — the Brotherhood and the ultraconservative Salafist Nour Party — closer together.
Nour, which won 25% of the vote in last year’s parliamentary elections, plays a pivotal role. It sided against the Brotherhood last week and joined a coalition of secular and religious parties in favor of ousting Morsi. But it balked at the naming of prominent secularist Mohamed ElBaradei as prime minister Saturday.
Facing increasing pressure from the Islamist camp after the killings, Nour withdrew from the negotiations on forming an interim government. The move is likely to consolidate Islamist forces and damage efforts to stabilize the country.
The military is dealing “with human beings, not animals, so how can you target people like that?” said Nour spokesman Nader Bakar. “This is something that cannot be justified.... Where is the military’s self-control and restraint?”
The army was unbowed. It was determined to convince Egyptians that its takeover and removal of Morsi, the country’s first freely elected president, was necessary to stem political chaos and economic turmoil. It said it was forced to act because of a deepening threat from radicals.
“The armed forces always deal with issues very wisely, but there is certainly also a limit to patience,” said Ahmed Ali, the military spokesman.
The army increasingly has used the term “terrorism” to describe not only attacks by militants, but also in reference to clashes between pro- and anti-Morsi demonstrators. The term to many Egyptians is becoming a code word for Islamists.
“The reports say that the army assaulted them while they were praying, but of course this isn’t true,” said Ibrahim Allaga, a 23-year-old who runs a T-shirt business. He was one of the anti-Morsi demonstrators in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on Monday. “This has never happened in Egyptian history, that the army would attack people while they pray. This is a rumor started by terrorist groups to get the support of the Egyptian people.”
In Washington, the Obama administration ruled out, at least for now, cutting off $1.5 billion in annual aid to Egypt despite a federal law that requires halting assistance to countries that have overthrown elected governments with military coups.
Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, told reporters that a quick cutoff of aid would be “not in the best interests of the United States.” Officials suggested that using the threat of a cutoff to push the Egyptian military and other political players toward reconciliation would be more effective than imposing a punishment that could alienate the generals.
Witnesses said demonstrators near the Republican Guard headquarters, where Morsi is believed to be in detention, fled in the early-morning darkness as soldiers and security forces fired tear gas, bullets and buckshot. The dead and wounded were ferried away by motorcycles, ambulances and in the arms of relatives.
“While we prayed, they shot us,” said Fatma Alzomor, who wailed near the Rabaa al Adawiya mosque, about two miles away. “Witness, free world, what is happening. We are being sprayed with blood. You must hear me.”
In the clamor, husbands reached for wives and mothers for children.
“We were praying at 3:30 a.m. when we were surprised by gunfire and tear gas all around us,” said Mahmoud Mohamed, a lawyer, who was shot in the arm. “We had women and children with us. The shooting went on for a long time. They didn’t give us a chance to retreat. They met us from every direction.”
The military showed journalists video of men throwing rocks and shooting at the army headquarters. The video did not suggest a sizable attack and political figures called for an independent investigation. One soldier and two policemen were killed in the incident. More than 40 soldiers were injured.
“We did not attack protesters. We were rather defending a military facility,” said Ali, the military spokesman. “They moved on us to provoke our soldiers and create this violent scene.”
“There have been many acts of inciting violence and provocations and targeting public facilities for the last few days, and we have issued more than one warning,” he added. “This is a law in all the world’s countries. No one gets near soldiers securing a military facility.”
After the gunfire, men wearing hard hats and carrying sticks, clubs and knives guarded the street leading to the Rabaa al Adawiya mosque, where thousands of Morsi supporters have been camped in tents. Boys carried shields, bandaged men curled in the shade, women wept from behind veils and the summer heat of a new day rose through the murmurs of clerics.
Many of the more than 400 wounded were treated in a makeshift field hospital next to the mosque. Volunteer doctors and nurses rushed boxes of cotton and syringes to it; the air was scented with antiseptic and sweat. A man lifted his shirt and showed a back speckled with birdshot. Another raised a bloodied ankle.
Dr. Ismail Hashish, a surgeon at the makeshift hospital, said he was praying at the time of the attack. “We heard screams from the stage of the mosque, telling the protesters not to go to the Republican Guard. I myself have seen nine dead. We have a huge number of cases. A lot of gunshot wounds to the chest and head.”
A man standing nearby told a journalist, “Write this: Today, freedom has been killed.”
Word spread of an increasing death toll. A man on a motorcycle drove through the barricades, weeping, as boys swept oranges and bloodied bandages from the street.
“What happened today is a massacre,” Erian, deputy leader of the Brotherhood’s political wing, said outside the field hospital. “To this chaos there is no exit unless Mohamed Morsi returns to office. There is no exit.... Our blood will overcome their weapons.”
Secular opposition leaders who backed the coup responded carefully to the attack. “Violence begets violence and should be strongly condemned,” tweeted ElBaradei, a Nobel laureate and former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency. “Independent Investigation a must. Peaceful transition is only way.”
Times staff writer Shashank Bengali and special correspondents Ingy Hassieb, Amro Hassan and Manar Mohsen contributed to this report.
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