The bodies lay on the grey floor smeared with streaks of blood. Three were covered with a purple and green blanket; two more lay under an Egyptian flag. Alongside the dead, a steady stream of victims was carried in to the hospital near the Rabaa Adiwiya mosque. Many of them looked unlikely to survive, such was the severity of their injuries.
The massacre at Cairo’s Presidential Guard headquarters had left at least 51 dead and more than 440 injured, another brutal step in this country’s seemingly inexorable slide into chaos.
The Muslim Brotherhood, whose supporters had been shot down, called for an uprising against the military-led alliance that had deposed its man, Mohamed Morsi, from the presidency. At the same time the Islamist movement warned the world that Egypt would become “the new Syria” unless was action taken “to stop attacks on the people”.
Demonstrators claimed that the dead included five children, one of whom was just six months old. This was not verified by the authorities, but families have been present at the protest camps and were still there among the crowd after the shooting yesterday, gathered under trees with bullet holes gouged in them.
The deaths sparked an immediate political reaction. The conservative religious party al-Nour, which had backed the Egyptian military’s action against Mr Morsi, announced that it would no longer take part in talks to appoint an interim prime minister. The Grand Mufti of al-Azhar University, the most senior authority in Sunni Islam and a man who endorsed the army’s “road map” for Egypt’s future, warned of civil war and declared he was going into seclusion until the bloodshed ended.
Both pro- and anti-Morsi factions accused the other of starting the killing spree. Yet there is evidence that some of the dead and wounded were hit while they were saying their dawn prayers this morning, kneeling with their backs to the direction from which the shots had come. Videos emerged last night of a man who looked like a soldier firing on protesters from a nearby building.
They had camped overnight outside the headquarters of the Presidential Guard, where they believe Mr Morsi is being held, vowing to free him. The army claimed that it had shot back in self-defence after coming under fire from a group of “terrorists”. A spokesman, Ahmed Ali, claimed that a soldier and a policeman had been killed, and maintained that troops had acted with “wisdom and patience”. “We are heading towards a truly democratic civil state admirable to the whole world,” he added. State television showed footage of an Islamist crowd throwing rocks at troops. The film showed young men emerging from behind a wall to launch petrol bombs, while images were also shown of a group of men using home-made handguns. It was, however, unclear where and when the filming had taken place.
The Muslim Brotherhood insisted that the shooting was unprovoked and that its supporters had behaved peacefully throughout the current crisis. However, Brotherhood followers were involved in clashes with both the security forces and opponents last Friday, in which four people were killed.
Twenty people interviewed at the scene of the shooting denied that the demonstrators had used firearms. While two admitted throwing rocks, their accounts, given separately, present a picture of a period of relative calm suddenly shattered in the half-light. Around 4am tear-gas canisters began to land around them, followed by shotgun rounds and then bullets.
Adli Mansour, the country’s interim President, expressed “deep regret” and promised a judicial inquiry into the deaths. Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the international Atomic Energy Agency who had backed the removal of Mr Morsi and is expected to take over as prime minister, also called for an investigation.
Even if the military had faced shots and petrol bombs, an objective inquiry will need to look at whether the scale and ferocity of the response was justified. “That is the least they can do,” said 30-year-old Amir el-Gabar, who was shot in the back of the shoulder. “Look, I am a doctor, not a terrorist. I have never fired a gun in my life and this is what happened to me.
“I am not going to say that there wasn’t trouble in another part of the protest because I do not know. But there was no trouble where we were. We were saying our first prayers when the firing began and I fell face forward. I tried to help others afterwards, but I could not really move this arm.”
Saleh Akef, 22, who was at the demonstration with his 18-year-old brother Abdulaziz, recalled the imam leading the prayers “stuttering in shock” when tear gas started spreading. “We couldn’t see, we were choking – I tried to find my brother and I saw a soldier with one knee on the ground aiming at me. He fired and I was hit.” The bullet went through his elbow.
“I know children were hurt, I saw one little boy myself; his father was carrying him away. I don’t know why they did this, but it was deliberate. At the end they moved the barbed-wire to come closer to shoot. We were throwing stones at them, but only to try and keep them away.”
Hazem Mamdouh acknowledged that stones were thrown after the initial round of tear gas, but vehemently denied that protesters were using weapons. “The media are saying we are terrorists. They say we fired on them, while we were praying with our backs to them.
“After the shooting started we got pushed up Tairan Street, all the men women and children. Every five minutes it seemed like somebody was getting killed. I have never seen anything like this, even during the first revolution in January 2011.
“Even Hosni Mubarak’s troops would not have done this.”
But sympathy for the Islamists was in short supply among their opponents. Samir Abbas, who has been among thousands of anti-Morsi demonstrators gathered in Tahrir Square in recent days, said: “The Muslim Brotherhood were in power until last week and they had no hesitation in using the police to attack protests against them. Brotherhood thugs would target and beat up opponents all the time. I do not believe for one minute that they did nothing and the army just opened fire. We know how devious they are.”
The current polarisation within Egyptian society was also reflected at a press conference given by the security forces during which local journalists successfully demanded the exclusion of the correspondent from Al-Jazeera.
The Qatar-based TV company is said to have close links with the Muslim Brotherhood. Some of the journalists later applauded the police and army spokesmen.
The military offered the remaining demonstrators the chance to withdraw from Rabaa Adawiya and stated that no one who had abided by the law would be hunted down. The makeshift protest campsite where the shooting had taken place is now under the control of the security forces.
Many of those caught up in the violence had abandoned their belongings as they fled; yesterday afternoon police officers were going through bags and wallets, checking the documents they found inside.