Protests descended into a bloodbath across Egypt on Friday, with around 50 killed in Cairo alone on a ‘Day of Rage’ called by followers of ousted president Mohamed Mursi to denounce a crackdown by the army-backed government.
As automatic gunfire echoed across Cairo, the standoff appeared to be sliding ever faster towards armed confrontation, evoking past conflict between militants and the state. While Western governments urged restraint after hundreds died when security forces cleared protest camps two days ago.
Saudi King Abdullah endorsed the government’s tactics against the Muslim Brotherhood, saying on Friday his nation stood with Egypt in its battle against ‘terrorism’.
Army helicopters hovered low over Mursi’s supporters in Ramses Square, the theatre of much of Friday’s bloodshed in Cairo, black smoke billowing from at least one huge blaze which lit up the night sky after sundown.
A Reuters witness saw the bodies of 27 people, apparently hit by gunfire and birdshot, wrapped in white sheets in a mosque. A Reuters photographer said security forces opened fire from numerous directions when a police station was attacked.
Men armed with automatic weapons appeared to be taking part in the Cairo protests. At Ramses Square, Reuters journalists saw three men carrying guns; protesters cheered when cars carrying gunmen arrived, another Reuters witness said.
“Sooner or later I will die. Better to die for my rights than in my bed. Guns don’t scare us anymore,” said Sara Ahmed, 28, a business manager who joined the demonstrators in Cairo. “It’s not about the Brotherhood, it’s about human rights.”
More than 30 people died in clashes elsewhere in Egypt. A security official said 24 policemen had been killed and 15 police stations attacked since late Thursday, underlining the increasing ferocity of the violence.
Egyptian state media has hardened its rhetoric against the Brotherhood invoking language used to describe militant groups such as al Qaeda and suggesting there is little hope of a political resolution to the crisis. “Egypt fighting terrorism,” said a logo on state television.
Showing no sign of wanting to back down, the Muslim Brotherhood announced a further week of nationwide protests.
The army deployed armoured vehicles on major roads around the capital and the interior ministry said police would use live ammunition against anyone threatening public buildings.
Anger on the streets was directed at army commander General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who moved against Mursi last month after massive street rallies against the his administration that had been dogged by accusations of incompetence and partisanship.
“The people want the butcher executed,” said Mustafa Ibrahim, 37, referring to Sisi, as he marched with a crowd of several thousand on downtown Cairo under blazing summer sun.
The Brotherhood said in a statement: “The coup makers have all lost their minds, norms and principles today.”
Published in The Express Tribune, August 17th, 2013.