Egypt in crisis: "The body is evidence of the massacre, how can I put it in the ground?"

Bel Trew goes inside the Cairo morgue where the bodies of Morsi supporters, massacred by the army, are waiting to be buried.

Egypt is bracing itself for another day of protests by supporters of toppled leader Mohamed Morsi, two days after security forces cleared two main Cairo sit-ins, leaving over 600 dead.

There are fears today’s 28 marches, dubbed the “Friday of Rage,” will turn bloody, as the Interior Ministry announced on Thursday night that police will use live ammunition to defend themselves and state institutions.

Meanwhile the military has increased their presence on Tahrir Square, Cairo’s main rallying point, to prevent Morsi supporters from setting up an encampment later.

As the death toll rises, families of missing protesters scour makeshift morgues. The primary one was housed in El-Eman mosque, near the now-gutted square that was the main protest site in Cairo's Nasr City neighborhood.

Outside, crowds of people bang on the main door, desperate to get inside. Those managing the dead can only let a few in at a time.

Inside over 200 bodies, swaddled in blood-spattered sheets, were lined up in rows on the floor. Families in medical masks pick their way through the bodies, peering under the sheets at the mutilated faces to look for their missing relatives.

The room is not refrigerated, so volunteers set up dozens of fans and place ingots of ice on the bodies. They spray air freshener and anti-bacterial spray to ward off the stench of the bodies that are starting to decompose.

One elderly man, in shock, sits on a chair by an empty coffin reading a charred copy of the Quran. Above him are lists of the dead that were found with their IDs.

Families that do find their relatives are forced to wait by the bodies, which cannot be removed until the burial paperwork is finished. 

“He’s my son, just 16 years old. They say we are terrorists, but if want to know the truth look here, see it for your own eyes,” says distraught housewife Ola Abdel-Fattah, from Shubra, bent double over the tiny frame of her only son Khaled on the floor. “His father was with him when he got shot. He carried him out holding Khaled’s body in one hand, his brain in the other. My son is missing half his head.”

Just to her right lie charred bodies too burnt to be identified after allegedly being torched in their tents during the police raid. Their contorted remains resemble the victims of Pompeii. A volunteer holds up a bundle of cloth; inside are two bloated and scorched feet. The rest of the body was never found.

Local medics move between the lines, scribbling names on the shrouds, or jotting down physical features of the dead who have not been claimed.

“Cairo’s main morgue, Zeinhom, is closed and also full. We’re worried the security forces will doctor the forensic reports so they won’t be listed as having been gunned down by security forces,” explains pharmacy student Aisha Shadla, 21, holding a pile of handwritten notes on the unidentified dead. “Now that Rabaa el-Adawiya mosque was stormed by the police, there was no other place to put them so we took the bodies here.”

Many are trying to file police reports so they can start legal proceedings proving their relative was killed by security forces. An impossible task, they say.

“The body is evidence of the massacre, how can I put it in the ground?” says a man, not wishing to be identified, sitting next to the body of his student nephew.

None of the bodies are included in the official death count, which Friday morning stood at 683. The “Anti-Coup Alliance” behind the pro-Morsi protests later reported that this mosque was stormed by security forces Thursday night, the bodies taken away.

Meanwhile the main sites of the sit-ins that have been cleared by the military. Bulldozers were sent to remove the remains of the tents.

Rabaa El-Adawiya mosque, once the heart of the Nasr City camp, is now a smoldering and blackened skeleton. 

The buildings surrounding the mosque, which housed the control room of the protest, have been trashed: posters of Morsi, shoes, blankets and medical supplies lay scattered on the ground.

Wednesday's bloody crackdown on protesters has been widely condemned by the international community. The UN Security Council, meeting on Thursday, said they “regretted the loss of life” and called on all sides to renounce violence.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had earlier called for UN intervention after what he described as a “massacre” in Egypt, and criticized Western countries for not preventing the bloodshed.

US President Barack Obama, for his part, cancelled a joint military exercise with the Egyptian army set to take place next month, adding that the usual US-Egypt relationship cannot continue in light of the bloody crackdown.

Meanwhile the death toll is still rising, and despite the removal of their camps, the supporters of Morsi say they will keep protesting.

“We cannot back down now,” says Hamdiya Sobhi, 35, by the body of her husband. "We will not let these deaths be in vain."

 

A woman identifies the body of a Morsi supporter killed in Cairo. Photo: Getty
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Peter Mandelson slams Jeremy Corbyn and Keir Starmer for “not acting in the national interest”

The Labour peer and former cabinet minister accuses his party leader and the shadow Brexit secretary of having “torpedoed Labour’s ability to oppose”.

The government has chosen to interpret last year’s sea-change referendum in an extreme way and embraced a set of positions and values on Brexit and migration that risk making the UK an illiberal, fractured and smaller nation, literally and economically.

How can the government get away with this? The referendum was not a landslide victory.  Millions of Labour, Conservative and Lib Dem supporters voted on the other side. Only a proportion of the winners voted as they did for xenophobic reasons – and they certainly did not vote to make themselves poorer.

Despite this, the government has chosen a course of action – a hard Brexit – that reflects the views of vocal and influential hardliners, not the majority of the public. Minority opinion has never been more powerful.

Theresa May is putting her own interest ahead of the country’s. She does not want to be the fourth Tory prime minister to be politically crucified by her party on the cross of Europe. She is desperate for the support of the right-wing press and the nationalist wing of her party.  Where Cameron placated, she has actively empowered, regardless of cost. And she hopes the costs of a hard Brexit will only emerge the other side of the next general election.

But this does not explain Labour’s position. The party’s frontbench has effectively brushed aside the views and interests of the bulk of its own supporters who wanted to stay in the EU and now don’t want to jeopardise their jobs by leaving the single market and the customs union as well. They value migration and want to see it managed, not virtually ended.

By going along with hard Brexit now, Jeremy Corbyn and Keir Starmer have torpedoed Labour’s ability to oppose the government’s approach when it fails later on. This is not acting in the national interest.

Nobody would claim that Brexit is easy to navigate politically, but Labour has rendered itself impotent on the most important set of issues facing Britain in most peoples’ lifetime. Setting a series of belated “tests” for the government will hardly reverse the damage.

The response to all this has to go beyond party politics. A national, pro-European effort should seek to unite opinion in civic society and mainstream politics, based on three Rs:

  • Resist. We have vocally to oppose what we don't agree with – we have to challenge and controversialise decisions so ‘new norms’ don't materialise. That is why pro-refugee, anti-Trump demos, the Gina Miller case, new newspapers or campaigns against hard Brexit are so important.
     
  • Renew. People with liberal, social democratic views have been losing  arguments on issues such as security, spending, globalisation, identity, migration, integration. We need to renew our policy offer in these areas – we need real alternatives not just raw anger. There is a lot that unites some Tory, Labour, Lib Dem, SNP and Green MPs and activists across all these issues – but the networks to do new thinking have to be created.
     
  • Reorganise. We need a new generation of leaders who can inspire, locally and nationally, from both non-metropolitan and metropolitan neighbourhoods and parts of the country. Campaigns and parties have to put much more effort in to looking for new talent beyond their own organisations and boundaries. We need to hear fresh, authentic voices and end the idea that mainstream politics cannot speak for the majority.

If the centre left does not provide the leadership of this fightback, with Labour at its core, it will not have a future.

Peter Mandelson is a Labour peer, former business secretary and an architect of New Labour.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition