Egypt’s political crisis has polarised still further, after the killing of 51 supporters of deposed president Mohamed Morsi by the military, in the deadliest incident since the elected Islamist leader was toppled by the army last week.
Protesters said shooting started as they performed morning prayers yesterday outside the Cairo barracks where Mr Morsi is believed to be held.
But military spokesman Ahmed Ali had a different version of events. He said that at 4am, armed men had attacked troops in the area around the Republican Guard compound in the north-east of the city.
“The armed forces always deal with issues very wisely, but there is certainly also a limit to patience,” he told a news conference, at which he presented what he said was video evidence of violence against the soldiers, some of it apparently taken from a helicopter.
Nevertheless, the military’s claim left many questions unanswered, especially why well-equipped soldiers had felt compelled to use automatic weapons against the protesters.
Emergency services said 435 people had been wounded.
Mr Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood urged 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.
One witness, university student Mirna el-Helbawi, watched from her apartment overlooking the scene, after she heard protesters banging on metal barricades, a common battle cry.
The 21-year-old said she saw troops and police approaching the protesters, who were lined up on the street behind a make-shift wall. The troops fired tear gas, the protesters responded with rocks. Soon after, she heard the first gunshots and saw the troops initially retreat backwards – which she said led her to believe the shots had come from the protesters’ side.
Supporters of Mr Morsi, however, said the security forces had fired on hundreds of people, including women and children, at the sit-in encampment. “They opened fire with live ammunition and lobbed tear gas,” Al-Shaimaa Younes, who was at the sit-in, said. “There was panic and people started running. I saw people fall.”
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.
Egypt’s top Muslim cleric, Sheik Ahmed el-Tayeb, who backed the removal of Mr Morsi, warned of “civil war” and said he was going into seclusion until the violence ended – a rare and dramatic show of protest directed at both sides.
He demanded a process immediately be set up for reconciliation, including the release of Brotherhood detainees.
Sheik el-Tayeb, head of Al-Azhar Mosque, said he had “no choice” but to seclude himself at home “until everyone shoulders his responsibility to stop the bloodshed instead of dragging the country into civil war”.
The military has said the overthrow of Mr Morsi was not a coup, and that it was enforcing the will of the people after millions took to the streets on 30 June to call for his 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.
It leaves the nation in a perilous state, with the risk of further enmity between people on either side of the political divide as an economic crisis deepens.
After yesterday’s confrontation, footage posted on YouTube showed a man in army fatigues on a rooftop near the Cairo barracks opening fire with a rifle five times, apparently in the direction of a crowd in the street below. In the clip, which lasted close to two minutes, two bloodied men were shown being carried away unconscious.
State-run television showed soldiers carrying a wounded comrade along a rock-strewn road, and news footage zoomed in on a handful of protesters firing crude handguns.
The rest of the city was for the most part calm, although armoured military vehicles closed bridges over the Nile to traffic following the violence.
The military overthrew Mr Morsi last Wednesday after mass nationwide demonstrations led by youth activists. The Brotherhood denounced the intervention as a coup and vowed peaceful resistance.
Talks on forming a new government were already in trouble before yesterday’s shooting, after the Nour Party rejected two liberal-minded prime ministerial candidates 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]”.
“The party decided the complete withdrawal from political participation in what is known as the road map,” it said.
The military can ill afford a lengthy political vacuum at a time of violent upheaval and economic stagnation.
Pictures of running street battles between pro- and anti-Morsi demonstrators have alarmed Egypt’s allies, including the United States and Europe, both key aid donors, and Israel, with which Egypt has had a US-backed peace treaty since 1979.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said she deplored the loss of life. “All those who claim legitimacy must act in a responsible way for the good of the country and avoid any provocation or escalation of violence,” she said.
Washington has not condemned the military takeover or called it a coup, prompting suspicion within the Brotherhood that it tacitly supports the overthrow of Mr Morsi.
The violence has also shocked Egyptians, who are 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 past week, video footage was circulated on social and state media showing what appeared to be Morsi supporters throwing two youths from a concrete tower on to a roof in the port city of Alexandria. The images, stills from which were published on the front page of the state-run Al-Akhbar newspaper on Sunday, could not be independently verified.
On Sunday, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators gathered in different parts of Cairo and were peaceful, but it was nonetheless a reminder of the risks of further instability.
For many Islamists, the overthrow of Egypt’s first freely elected president was a bitter reversal that raised fears of a return to the suppression they endured for decades under autocratic rulers such as 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 take-over of the state – a charge the Brotherhood has vehemently denied.
‘Something hit my head, and I felt blood. I couldn’t stem the flow; there was too much’
The Cairo hospital was full. Men crammed two, three, four to a room. Their clothes were soaked with blood.
Their story starts the same way. It was dawn, they were praying. Then someone shouted, and they found themselves under fire by the military from all directions.
“They shot us with tear gas, birdshot, rubber bullets – everything. Then they used live bullets,” said Abdelaziz Abdel Shakua, a bearded 30-year-old who was wounded in his right leg. He came from outside Cairo, like many people protesting against what they say was a military coup against the democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi.
With thousands of others, he says he went to camp peacefully outside the Republican Guard barracks where Mr Mursi is being held. The attack by the army, he said, took the protesters by surprise.
His is one of two opposing narratives of the violence that left more than 50 people dead, the deadliest episode since Mr Morsi’s overthrow last Wednesday and a sign of the widening rifts in the Arab world’s most populous state.
The military disputes protesters’ version of events. It says a “terrorist group” tried to storm the Republican Guard compound and one army officer was killed and 40 wounded.
Another protester, Saber El-Sabaee said dawn prayers were abruptly cut short. “First they started shooting tear gas, and then guns above our heads. People started to fall back. Soldiers began shooting live bullets,” he said.
Mr El-Sabaee felt something hit his head. Then he felt blood. He put his prayer mat to his head to try to staunch the flow. There was too much. His striped, buttoned-down shirt was soaked through.
Doctors and nurses yesterday moved frantically through the hallways of the General Authority for Health Insurance hospital in Nasr City, which is less than a mile from the main pro-Morsi rallies in north-eastern Cairo. Some shouted to clear the way. Stretchers were wheeled through.
Men slouched in the hallways, some with their heads in their hands. Handwritten lists of names of the wounded were posted in hospital corridors.
Mustafa Shalaby, a young doctor at the hospital, said he had counted at least 45 dead and more than 400 wounded. About a tenth of those hurt were in an “unstable condition”. Most had been hit with live ammunition, he said.
Some of the wounded said they were trying to comprehend why the army, an institution some say they respected, would open fire. “I had full trust in the army,” Mahmoud Abdel Qader, 25, a teacher, said. He wore a blue sweater, khaki shorts and rubber sandals. He was hit in the back with a bullet, he said. The stretcher-style bed he lies on is soaked in blood.
Abdel Qader blamed army officers who want to preserve their privileges rather than rank-and-file conscripts, normal Egyptians like him. He said foreign and domestic powers were scared that if Egypt went down the path of political Islam, the rest of the region would follow.
“This is about Islam, not more, not less,” he said.