As it settled into an eerie quiet one day after the worst violence since the start of the 2011 revolution, Egypt confronted the gruesome aftermath and myriad repercussions of the government’s crackdown.
“It’s such total chaos,” said Erin Evers, a Human Rights Watch researcher who spent the day in and around one of Cairo’s largest morgues. “Human Rights Watch and other human-rights organizations have been telling the government for the past six weeks that any breakup of this sit-in would be a massacre. But this is so much worse than we expected.”
Images from Egyptian photographer Mosa’ab Elshamy showed rows upon rows of bodies lining the floor of a Cairo mosque on Thursday. As per Islamic tradition, the bodies were wrapped in white shrouds in preparation for burial. Weeping relatives kneel nearby, palms upturned, reciting prayers for the dead.
According to multiple witnesses, some of the corpses of those killed on Wednesday were completely charred.
Muslim burials are generally required to take place as quickly as possible following death. However, some relatives were forced to wait as authorities documented and released the hundreds of bodies. In many images and videos, the bodies lining the floor had large, melting blocks of ice on their chests, and air-conditioning fans aimed down at them – an attempt to slow decomposition.
Ms. Evers described walking into one of Egypt’s largest mosques. “All I saw was a sea of plastic bags full of water,” she said. At first, she believed them to be bags of saline solution, of which there had been a shortage in the nearby field hospitals. But then she was informed that the bags were full of melted ice, once used to keep the bodies from decomposing.
“It was the most heartbreaking thing I’ve ever seen.”
Occupied by thousands of boisterous Morsi supporters just two days ago, the Muslim Brotherhood encampments in northeast Cairo were reduced to rubble and strewn with debris and torn images of ousted president Mohammed Morsi.
Amateur video taken just before security forces stormed the camp located near Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque showed pro-Morsi demonstrators lighting large bonfires, into which they threw everything from placards to clothing to tents – some of those fires continued to burn. Images from the area following the crackdown showed the presence of armoured military vehicles, and the Rabaa al-Adaqiya mosque itself severely damaged. Dozens of torched cars line the street.
Some of the strongest supporters of the military’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood come from Egypt’s minority Coptic community. Well before Mr. Morsi’s ouster, Egyptian Coptic Christians were overwhelmingly opposed to the Brotherhood – their opposition re-enforced when Mr. Morsi stacked the committee to draft the new Egyptian constitution with Islamists.
In the immediate aftermath of Wednesday’s violence, dozens of churches across the country – some of them several centuries old – were attacked, looted and in some cases badly burned. Almost universally, Egypt’s Coptic community laid the blame squarely on the Brotherhood.
“Some of these churches are historic,” said Ghada Melek, a member of the Canadian Coptic community who compiled a list of what she says are 41 Christian institutions in Egypt that were attacked. “It’s an attack on the Egyptian identity.”
Some of the worst anti-Christian violence took place in the province of Minya, 200 kilometres south of Cairo. The area is home to a large Coptic population, but was also the site of large pro-Morsi demonstrations.
Through its official media arm, the Brotherhood offered an oddly phrased denial that its members were responsible for the anti-Coptic vandalism, saying: “Although some Coptic leaders supported or even participated in the coup, for one reason or another, no such attacks can be
Among the dead was a 26-year-old journalist from the United Arab Emirates, Habiba Abd El-Aziz. She had been in Egypt on vacation when she was killed.
Ms. Abd El-Aziz’s mother later made public the last text message conversation she had with her daughter.
“The crowds are massive and on high alert. Pray for us, mother,” Ms. Abd El-Aziz wrote.
After receiving her mother’s prayer, she wrote: “I’m heading to the platform in a little while. There are tanks there.”
Ms. Abd El-Aziz’s mother tried calling her daughter several times, but never heard from her again.
The children of several prominent Brotherhood leaders were also killed. In an emotional interview on a pro-Brotherhood station, one of the group’s senior leaders, Mohamed el-Beltagi, revealed that his 17-year-old daughter Asmaa was among the dead. A picture of the smiling girl’s face was soon carried by many pro-Morsi supporters in the streets of Cairo and posted online along with the hashtag “#SaveEgypt.”
No end in sight
While the scale of violence diminished greatly on Thursday, almost everyone in Egypt expects more killings in the coming weeks.
In an ominous sign, Brotherhood spokesman Gehad El-Haddad indicated it had suffered serious blows to its leadership, and that anger over the massacre made it impossible to control the group’s many members. The statement is seen by some as a warning that, rather than a disciplined group response, the Brotherhood’s reaction to the crackdown may come in the form of many disparate acts of violence across the country.
That leaves observers bracing for another conflict on Friday, a day that has already become synonymous with protests since the start of Egypt’s revolution.
“Today, everybody holding their breath,” said Ms. Evers of Human Rights Watch. “Tomorrow they may let it out.”