Eyewitness: Chaos reigns in Cairo

Cairenes have grown used to disruption over the past few years, but many fear this might be the beginning of a particularly violent period in Egypt’s transition.

Riot police fire tear gas in Cairo 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Riot police fire tear gas in Cairo 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
CAIRO – The Egyptian capital awoke to scenes of utter chaos early Wednesday morning as security forces moved to disperse the Muslim Brotherhood’s protest camps.
The first thing most residents near the Nahda sit-in knew of the long-anticipated operation was the telltale drone of military helicopters circling the encampment.
Soon thereafter, the police, supported by the army, used armored bulldozers to barrel through the camp’s concrete block and sandbag walls before firing tear gas.
Mohamed Morsi supporters, most of whom belong to the deposed president’s Muslim Brotherhood, insist police snipers fired at them from hovering helicopters.
“They were brutal. There were bullets coming from all directions,” a camp organizer who identified himself as Hafez said.
By 8 a.m. the surrounding streets were full of ambulances ferrying away the dead and wounded among both the protesters and police.
While Nahda was cleared by mid-morning, the security services found the going much tougher at Rabaa, the larger camp on the other side of the city.
The military and interim government had been warned that any attempt to storm the camps would likely lead to severe loss of life, and it seems as if the worst fears of Egyptian liberals and foreign governments have come true.
Fighting raged on throughout the day at Rabaa, with more than a hundred people confirmed dead, including a number of policemen, a Jerusalem-based British cameraman, and several other journalists.
Many Morsi supporters had made clear their willingness to die rather than vacate their camps, and some of the ousted president’s supporters wrote their names on their arms to make identification easier if they died.
Back across the river, the police soon found themselves confronted with another sit-in.
Thousands of Morsi supporters who had been evicted from Nahda set about ripping up sidewalks, uprooting benches and bus shelters, and tearing off scaffolding in order to block roads around a large roundabout in the upscale Mohandeseen neighborhood.
Early police assaults were easily repulsed, and the crowd gleefully gutted and burned a police truck that had been abandoned as the security services fell back.
Senior Brotherhood officials insisted that none of their supporters were armed, but a van laden with AK-47 assault rifles began distributing weapons when the fighting intensified. As the police regrouped, the Brotherhood’s casualty numbers soared.
At least 20 bloodied and barely conscious young men were propped up on the backs of motorbikes and dispatched to a field hospital in a local mosque.
The air was thick with black smoke from burning tires, and acrid with tear gas, but it was Egypt’s Christians, not the police, at whom many protesters directed their anger.
“This is the Christians’ fault,” said Ahmed Sabry, as he sheltered behind a kiosk.
Many Islamists have been furious at the gusto with which many Coptic Christians appeared to have embraced the interim government, and Wednesday saw a number of churches set alight across the country.
As night fell, the police and army set about trying to pacify the city. All bridges across the Nile were blocked, major thoroughfares closed and a nighttime curfew introduced.
Still, fighting raged on.
Cairenes have grown used to disruption over the past few years, but many fear this might be the beginning of particularly violent period in Egypt’s transition.
“This is just hell. I don’t want a police state and I don’t want the Muslim Brotherhood, but now it looks like we might have both at the same time,” said Mustafa Ali as he dashed to the supermarket before 7 p.m. curfew.