Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood has called for a national uprising in response to the deaths of more than 50 supporters of the deposed president, Mohammed Morsi, who were shot dead at a sit-in.
The army said it acted with “wisdom and prudence” after the headquarters of the Republican Guard was, it claimed, attacked by Muslim Brotherhood supporters who believe Mr Morsi is being held there.
But witnesses described being overwhelmed by tear gas and then coming under fire from all sides as protesters camped out in front of the base peacefully finished their dawn prayers at about 3.30am.
“People were still kneeling and suddenly we found that police were approaching and firing tear gas,” said Mustafa Gamal, 21, a law student
Mohammed Hassan, 36, an agricultural engineer, said: “The police were shooting at us from one side and the army from the other. The guards standing in front of the base were shooting. I saw two people being killed. The bullets entered their heads and came out the side.”
A Brotherhood spokesman said that the number of deaths had risen to 55, although – in contrast to earlier reports – she could not confirm that any were women or children. The official death toll was 51 people killed and 435 wounded.
Adly Mansour, the chief justice acting as interim president, said that parliamentary elections would take place once amendments to the suspended constitution were passed in a referendum, saying a legislative vote could be held in about six months.
He announced an immediate inquiry, under pressure from all sides over the death toll. Witnesses, some from inside the cordon of protesters and some who lived nearby, said there had been clashes before the shooting started. The reports raised questions about who had fired first – many agreed the first trouble was near the Al-Mostafa mosque 400 yards away.
Witnesses, some from inside the cordon of protesters and some who lived nearby, said there had been clashes before the shooting started. The reports raised questions about who had fired first – many agreed the first trouble was near the Al-Mostafa mosque 400 yards away.
Ahmed al-Nashar, a Brotherhood activist who collated reports from survivors, said the perimeter of the protest had been attacked by “thugs” acting in support of the military as the prayers ended, but that they were initially repelled by protesters with sticks and stones.
The “thugs” had then opened fire, he said, prompting soldiers to join in – or perhaps to respond. “They could not distinguish between protesters and the thugs,” he said.
Independent witnesses confirmed claims of initial clashes but said the thugs were pro-Morsi protesters.
“We heard shouts of 'Allahu Akbar’ and the sound of people running, so we went on to the balcony to see what was happening,” said Mirna el-Helbawi, 21, who lives on the 14th floor of a block of flats nearby. “There was a huge number of troops, and a large crowd of protesters. The police and army threw tear gas. Then the pro-Morsi people threw stones. There were running battles, right below my window. They were totally wild clashes.”
She said she then saw “pro-Morsi people” shooting from the top of the mosque. “The troops ran away, but then came back not long after, and they fired at the pro-Morsi people,” she said. “I didn’t see any plain-clothed people among the army or police.”
Large numbers fell where they stood. Mr Gamal said even some of those who were still sleeping were killed. “It was a massacre by any account – every minute, five or six people were falling,” he said. “I saw 10 people fall around me.”
He said that as the base entrance faced in the direction of Mecca, many of those killed were facing that way to pray and had their backs to the shooting.
In the darkness flashes, palls of tear gas and the sounds of shots competed in creating confusion. Ahmed Maher, 36, said he was shot by a soldier five times, including twice in the face, as he tried to help another man who had been shot in the head, leg and chest. “As I was running to get away from the smell of the tear gas, I saw a man on the ground who had been shot,” he said, his shirt and trousers stained in blood.
“I tried to carry him but couldn’t move him. That’s when I was shot. I have never seen anything like this before.”
Mahmoud Foad, 29, a medical sales representative, lying on a hospital trolley after being shot through the knee, said there was firing from two directions — from the base, where heavily armed troops had been stationed for two days, and from the airport road.
Later in the afternoon, the army held a press conference to defend its handling of the incident, claiming that protesters attacked with molotov cocktails and live fire. The spokesman, Ahmed Mohammed Ali, said one soldier and two police officers had been killed and 42 injured. However, he failed to mention the other casualties or how they had died. Video presented by the army showed an attacker clearly targeting military lines with some sort of gun.
However, footage posted by protesters on YouTube showed a soldier on the roof of a building nearby, thought to belong to the defence ministry, opening fire with single rounds from a semi-automatic rifle on the crowds below, and one man being carried away.
The stench of tear gas was still detectable later in the day, and blood stained the road. Makeshift tents had been reduced to smouldering ashes, apparently burnt by the army.
The incident had immediate political repercussions. The country’s second largest Islamist party, the Salafi Nour party, which had broken with the Brotherhood and supported the army’s coup, called off negotiations for a new government. It had already vetoed the secular opposition’s preferred candidate for prime minister, Mohammed ElBaradei, the former United Nations atomic energy agency chief.
Mr ElBaradei issued a statement by Twitter: “Violence begets violence and should be strongly condemned. Independent investigation a must. Peaceful transition is only way.”
The Brotherhood rejected calls for reconciliation. It has been invited to rejoin the political process but refuses to do so until Mr Morsi is restored.
“We call for an uprising of the great Egyptian people against those who want to steal our revolution over the bodies of the people,” a statement from the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party said. “The party calls on the international community and international organisations and bodies, and all the free world, to intervene to stop further massacres and end military rule, so as not to create a new Syria in the Arab world.”