Smouldering piles of tents and burned-out buildings are all that is left of Cairo’s main sit-in for the ousted Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi, forcibly cleared by security forces Wednesday morning.
Over 400 people were killed and thousands injured, in what is being dubbed the bloodiest day in Egypt’s recent history. The protesters had been camping out for 6 weeks in two areas of the capital, Nasr City and Giza, they had vowed to stay put until Morsi and the constitution were reinstated.
Following weeks of attempted negotiations and reports of fierce fights within the government, the presidency had finally announced last week that talks had failed and that the protesters must go home.
Despite promises from the authorities that they would exercise restraint, the army and the police opened fire on the camps, which housed men, women and children. Among the dead was the 61-year-old British Sky TV photographer, Mick Deane, who was caught in the crossfire.
In bid to assuage the violence, which had erupted across the country, the president announced a month-long state of emergency and a daily curfew on Wednesday night. Citizens, holed up in their homes, were glued to their television sets as live footage from the streets showed a capital on fire.
“The army just let it happen, the police were leading the assault,” says Ahmed Azay, 44-year-old businessman, taking a breather during Wednesday’s 12 hour police assault in the main Nasr City sit-in. “They used live ammunition, birdshot and tear gas – I’ve never seen it this bad.”
At around 6.30am Wednesday morning,panicked protesters made the calls to their families that military and police had encircled the two encampments. By 7am the security forces were firing tear gas and bullets directly into the crowds.
Despite officials claiming demonstrators were given safe passage out of the sit-in, protesters told the New Statesman the only road out of the Nasr City camp was opened about 10 hours into fighting.
Meanwhile police on top of armoured vehicles shot live ammunition, birdshot and gas at anyone who dared to approach the area.
The chatter of automatic weapon fire resounded through the Nasr City side streets, as residents, bystanders and journalists hid behind cars and the walls of residential buildings. Relatives of those trapped inside made desperate phone calls to their loved ones, while the military helicopters circled above.
Meanwhile across the city in Giza, at the second pro Morsi camp, the protesters were pushed back in the matter of hours and the bulldozers went it. The BBC reported that both the security forces and the protesters wielded guns.
The Nasr City protesters held their ground for hours, hurling broken up bits of pavement and molotovs as the security forces who responded with gunfire.
Inside the sit-in during the onslaught, women and children sat huddled in a southern corner behind sand bags and tarpaulin sheets: one of the last patches of ground thatthe protesters still held. The gunfire came from every direction, as the police fired from side streets, so protesters ran bent-double behind walls.
Meanwhile thick sheets of black smoke from the burning tents and the tear gas clogged the air.
The injured were delivered on tattered stretchers from the front line, nearly all with bullet wounds to their chest and their head, paramedics said.
One young man, in his twenties his underwear and trousers stained red from blood and his leg in a bandage, was rushed to a nearby ambulance. Medics attempted to resuscitated and failed. He died before they could get him to a hospital.
“They said they would give us a chance to leave the square safely, but they never did. Instead they shot at people in the chest and the head,” says Salem Gamil, a 58-year-old former army officer, who surprisingly broke ranks to condemn the action of the military.
The violence spread across many cities outside of Cairo, as Morsi protesters clashed with security forces in Alexandria, Suez, Assiut and Fayoum. In Suez and Aswan, protesters swarmed local government offices, in Beni Suef they set fire to a courthouse.
Meanwhile the Christian community came under attack, as Islamist supporters of the ousted president blamed them for the toppling of Morsi and the crackdown. Dozens of churches, Christian schools, businesses and homes were torched, raided and ransacked nationwide. Many fear the sectarian violence will only escalate, as tensions soar.
Back in the capital, cracks within the government started to show.
The Vice President for Foreign Affairs Mohamed ElBaradei, who assured the nation talks with the Brotherhood were on the horizon, resigned. Meanwhile the liberal Prime Minister Hezam Bablawi justified the security crackdown as an “extraordinary measure” that needed to be taken when protesters “spread chaos”.
The liberal political coalition the National Salvation Front, blamed the Brotherhood for the onslaught as they said their sit-ins had not been peaceful.
Meanwhile western allies, who had been in Cairo helping mediate between the warring sides, looked on with dismay.
The US Secretary of State slammed the security forces attack as “deplorable” as it ran counter to Egyptian aspirations for “genuine democracy”. EU chief Catherine Ashton called for an end to the emergency status and urged security forces to act with the “upmost restraint”.
Back in the clashes, a moment before the main sit-in was cleared, civilians were defiant as ever about continuing their protests.
“I don’t know how I survived myself, this is one of the worst experiences I’ve ever been through,” said Khaled Alaa, 56, a worker breaking down on the curbside just to the side of a street battle at the entrance to the Nasr City camp. “We aren’t leaving, we are ready to die for our freedom.”