CAIRO -- Doctors rushed over floors scattered with bandages as the dead, covered in blood-drenched sheets, were identified by relatives in a makeshift hospital. The bodies were carried towards streets filled with mourners in a nation slipping deeper into violence.
The call to prayer pierced the sky and faded as thousands of Islamists, many tending wounds, prostrated in front of the Rabaa al Adawiya mosque, site of a month-long sit-in. Worshippers whispered of vengeance and pictures of the newly fallen fluttered in the sun.
This was Cairo on a scorching Saturday after pre-dawn clashes in which the Health Ministry reported at least 80 people, mostly supporters of deposed president Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood movement, were killed by police and civilian gunmen.
The ferocity of those hours spoke to an Egypt that appears to be coming undone. The deaths suggested a perilous turning point in a struggle between Islamists and the new military-backed government over the country's political destiny. Morsi was overthrown in a coup on July 3 and his supporters are demanding his reinstatement.
The killings stoked resolve among the Brotherhood, but they also illustrated the narrowing options the group faces against a military that claims a popular mandate to stem "violence and terrorism." The army has vowed to end the demonstration at the mosque soon, which may ignite fresh bloodshed at a time foreign capitals are increasingly worried about Egypt's trajectory. "We must live in dignity or die trying to get it," said Moataz Moussa, standing near the barricades. "They call us terrorists but we are not. We have only stones against the army's weapons."
The military is seeking to crush the Brotherhood, which over the last two years rose from an outlawed opposition group to Egypt's dominant political force. The campaign of Gen. Abdel Fattah Sisi, commander of the armed forces, against Islamists mirrors the harsh tactics of other former military leaders, including Gamal Abdel Nasser and Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted in a 2011 uprising.
Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim said security forces fired tear gas to stop Morsi's supporters from blocking the 6th of October Bridge, a key Cairo thoroughfare. The police responded, he said, after Morsi's followers marched towards the bridge from the Rabaa al Adawiya mosque.pIbrahim did not explicitly say whether security forces fired other weapons. He added, however, that "the police have not and will not aim any firearm at the chest of any protester."
The general prosecutor's office said Morsi supporters shot first at police. The state news agency said the pro-Morsi "crowd attacked security forces with shotguns, pistols and Molotov cocktails."
That account differs from the version told by Brotherhood members, wounded protesters and doctors in the field hospital near the mosque. They say 120 people were killed, many from live ammunition, when police and unknown gunmen, including snipers, attacked peaceful protesters in clashes that intensified through the night.
"The early injuries we saw were mostly from tear gas. Then, a little later, we treated birdshot wounds," said Dr. Esam Arafa, a volunteer at the field hospital. "But around 2 a.m. there was a terrifying escalation. We saw injuries from live bullets. Protesters were shot in the chest, head and eyes. I've seen no less than 1,000 wounded patients."
The field hospital radiated fatigue and sorrow. The wounded and the dead were ferried in by trucks, cars and motorcycles. Medical supplies were quickly unpacked; stitches were counted, birdshot plucked from skin.
By late morning, rubber gloves streaked with blood littered the floor and the stench of death began to rise. "It was never this bloody before," said Arafa. "We are at war."
The early gunshot wounds "were mostly in the legs, but later on they targeted the chest and upper body," said Dr. Fadwa Rouby, a forensic specialist. "I can't imagine what will happen in this country next."
-- Los Angeles Times