At least 51 people were killed on Monday when demonstrators enraged by the military overthrow of Egypt’s elected Islamist president said the army opened fire during morning prayers outside the Cairo barracks where Mohamed Morsi is believed held.
However, the military said “a terrorist group” tried to storm the Republican Guard compound and one army officer had been killed and 40 wounded. Soldiers returned fire when they were attacked by armed assailants, according to a military source for Reuters.
In the deadliest incident since Morsi’s was ousted, emergency services said more than 430 were wounded. Morsi’s group, the Muslim Brotherhood, ordered people to rise up against the army, which they accuse of a military coup to topple the leader, threatening an escalation in Egypt’s political crisis.
At a hospital near the Rabaa Adawiya mosque where Islamists have camped out since Morsi was toppled on Wednesday, rooms were crammed with people wounded in the violence, sheets were stained with blood and medics rushed to attend to the wounded. Abdelaziz Abdel Shakua, a bearded 30-year-old who was wounded in his right leg, said:
They shot us with teargas, birdshot, rubber bullets – everything. Then they used live bullets.
As an immediate consequence of the clash, the ultra-conservative Islamist Nour party, which initially backed the military intervention, said it was withdrawing from talks to form an interim government for the transition to new elections.
A spokesman for the interim presidency, Ahmed Elmoslmany, said work on forming the government would go on, though Nour’s withdrawal could seriously undermine efforts at reconciling rival factions, he said:
What happened will not stop steps to form a government.
The military has said that the overthrow was not a coup, and it was enforcing the will of the people after millions took to the streets on June 30 to call for Morsi’s resignation.
But pro- and anti-Morsi protests took place in Cairo, Alexandria and other cities, and resulted in clashes on Friday and Saturday that left 35 dead.
Tthe Arab world’s largest nation of 84 million people in a perilous state, with the risk of further enmity between people on either side of the political divide while an economic crisis deepens.
A Reuters journalist at the scene saw first aid helpers attempting mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on a dying man. Al Jazeera’s Egypt channel showed footage from inside a makeshift clinic near the scene of the violence, where Morsi supporters attempted to treat bloodied men.
Seven dead bodies were lined up in a row, covered in blankets, an Egyptian flag, and a man placed a portrait of Morsi on one of the corpses. Footage broadcast by Egyptian state TV showed Morsi supporters throwing rocks at soldiers in riot gear on one of the main roads leading to Cairo airport.
Young men – frequent pray to the Muslim Brotherhood – were carrying sticks, crouched behind a building, and would jump out to throw petrol bombs before retreating again.
State-run television showed soldiers carrying a wounded fellow-soldier along a rock-strewn road, and news footage zoomed in on a handful of protesters firing crude handguns during clashes.
The rest of the city was for the most part calm, though armored military vehicles closed bridges over the Nile to traffic following the violence.
The military overthrew Morsi on Wednesday after mass nationwide demonstrations led by youth activists demanding his resignation, but the Muslim Brotherhood denounced the intervention as a coup and vowed “peaceful” resistance. Clearly, the rhetoric did not match the reality, which should quickly remind us why the Muslim Brotherhood was outlawed during Hosni Mubarak’s rule.
Talks on forming a new government were already at risk before Monday’s shooting, after the Nour Party rejected two liberal-minded (in other words, western-backed) candidates for prime minister proposed by interim head of state Adli Mansour, the top constitutional court judge.
Nour, Egypt’s second biggest Islamist party, which is vital to give the new authorities a veneer of Islamist backing, said it had withdrawn from the negotiations in protest at what it called the “massacre at the Republican Guard (compound)”. Nour also said:
The party decided the complete withdrawal from political participation in what is known as the road map.
The military can ill afford a lengthy political vacuum at a time of violent upheaval and economic stagnation.
Scenes of running street battles between pro- and anti-Morsi demonstrators in Cairo, Alexandria and cities across the country have alarmed Egypt’s allies, including key aid donors the United States and Europe, and Israel, with which Egypt has had a U.S.-backed peace treaty since 1979.
The violence has also shocked Egyptians, growing tired of the turmoil that began two-and-a-half years ago with the overthrow of autocrat Hosni Mubarak in a popular uprising.
In one of the most shocking scenes of the last week, video footage circulated on social and state media of what appeared to be Morsi supporters throwing two youths from a concrete tower on to a roof in the port city of Alexandria.
On Sunday, huge crowds numbering hundreds of thousands gathered in different parts of Cairo and were peaceful, but nonetheless a reminder of the risks of further instability.
For many Islamists, the overthrow of Egypt’s first freely elected president was an unacceptable reversal that raised fears of a return to the suppression they endured for decades under autocratic rulers like Mubarak.
On the other side of the political divide, millions of Egyptians were happy to see the back of a leader they believed was orchestrating a creeping Islamist takeover of the state – a charge the Brotherhood has vehemently denied, naturally.
President Obama has not condemned the military takeover or called it a coup, prompting suspicion within the Brotherhood that it tacitly supports the overthrow, but at home the president is under fire for flip-flopping his position on Egypt.
Obama has ordered a review to determine whether annual U.S. assistance of $1.5 billion, most of which goes to the Egyptian military, should be cut off as required by law if a country’s military ousts a democratically elected leader.
Egypt cannot afford to lose their foreign aid. The country appears headed for a looming funding crunch unless it can quickly access money from overseas. The local currency has lost 11% of its value since late last year.
As far as U.S. intervention, there is little domestic support for such an undertaking. A recent survey reported that 73%, a wide majority, oppose military intervention in Egypt and think American should just leave it alone.