CAIRO — Driving to Rabi’a Al-Adaweya Mosque at 4:45 a.m., where supporters of ousted president Mohammed Morsi had held a sit-in since June 28, several military light tanks rolled down the Oct. 6 Bridge that slices through the capital; the formation headed to Tahrir Square, and it was just the beginning. Dozens of armored personnel carriers, light tanks, military jeeps, central security armored patrols and hundreds of heavily armed military and police troopers blocked every road leading to the rally.
“Turn around and get out of here, no one is allowed in!” shouted the Special Forces officer with a finger on his AK-47’s trigger. He wore a camouflage bulletproof vest, a lifted facial mask and a threatening attitude. Behind him, gunshots and sporadic yet heavy machine-gun fire echoed in a war-zone-like sound.
On the other side, where the main battle started in front of the Republican Guards Club, red-capped military police personnel surrounded the area where Ministry of Interior tactical units and military Special Forces took shots, chased their still-alive targets and made arrests.
A troop of about a dozen masked, armed-to-the-teeth military and police officers in full combat gear hastily crossed the main boulevard that stretches all the way to Cairo’s airport with military facilities and government departments on both sides. They darted into a residential building and reappeared a few seconds later beating two detainees. A circle of blood stained the light green shirt of one of the freshly apprehended and apparently targeted pair who were both dragged to a gas station occupied by several military jeeps.
“They are killing everyone! We received 16 dead bodies and dozens of injured, mostly live ammunition shot to the head and chest,” screamed Gehad el-Haddad, the Muslim Brotherhood’s head of foreign media relations, speaking to Al-Monitor by phone while gunshots continued to echo. He continued to publish photos he freshly captured of the cadaverous scene of the clinic inside the mosque where the rally was being held.
At least a dozen men who, for days, formed vigilante patrols around their residential block a few yards away from the rally-turned-battle told Al-Monitor that the firing kicked off with dawn prayers, around 3:30 a.m. None of the distant, lying-low watchers was able to confirm who started the firing spree that continued as they spoke.
Arriving at the military barricade on the parallel street leading into the main sit-in — where several most-wanted, top Muslim Brotherhood officials have been surrounded by thousands of loyalists since their arrest warrants were signed hours after the July 3 coup — Youssef Talaat, a member of the brotherhood press room, updated Al-Monitor that the number of deaths he witnessed had risen to 34 and the wounded numbered 140, rising by the minute.
The military cordon was impenetrable. Ambulances, a firetruck and dozens of cars were turned back before the officer’s loudspeaker announced: “The white van parked on the left, get out of here immediately,” a threatening call addressed the van carrying Al-Monitor’s reporter and several other journalists.
Meanwhile, the military announced that the Republican Guards Club was attacked at dawn by an armed “terrorist group,” an attack that forced the military to defend its facilities. No further details were disclosed by Egypt’s state television continued to play videos of several armed elements firing at the security personnel during the dawn clashes. Another crude video showed a military officer firing his machine gun from the roof top of a building while another filmed the scene.
By afternoon, as the military cordon was lifted and ambulances raced between the bloody scene and several east Cairo hospitals, an official Health Ministry statement announced that 51 Morsi supporters were killed and more than 500 were injured. The statement published on state-owned media channels and websites denied any deaths among women or children while the Muslim Brotherhood witnesses and doctors insist that six children died of suffocation due to the intensity of tear gas fired throughout the confrontations.
Usama Eid, who claimed to have witnessed the confrontations, said, “The military started firing at protesters as they performed their dawn prayers.”
“They were using live ammunition and birdshot, they shot at the head and chest,” said Eid, who claimed that he saw more than 100 injured protesters being dragged into the Republican Guards facility and never released.
Mustafa Abdelmenem, a bearded man, carried a photo of his nephew who was shot down earlier and claimed that “corpses of Morsi’s supporters who were killed earlier have been taken by the military, dressed in uniforms and declared as military casualties.”
Dozens of Morsi supporters, young and old, introduced themselves as eyewitnesses, but their testimonies did not match. They agreed on three main points: The military started shooting, they shot directly at people during dawn prayers, and all the video footage presented by the military was fabricated.
Sitting at the Rabi’a Mosque Clinic with a bloodied shirt, Dr. Ahmed Motemed told Al-Monitor that the clinic received 400 injured since the clashes had erupted at dawn. “They were shot in the head, chest, abdomen, and limbs. Nine of the injured died upon their arrival to the hospital. We are receiving reports that the death total has reached 88 but the Health Ministry is hiding the figure.”
Motemed, a surgeon and professor at Mansoura University School of Medicine, said, “Eight women and four children died throughout the day; all the children died of suffocation and were 6-months-old or younger.”
A news conference held on Monday evening by the defense and interior ministries asserted that the military action earlier in the day was triggered by an armed attack on the Republican Guards Club.
“This morning, an armed group led a live ammunition attack on the security personnel of the Republican Guards facility. Simultaneously, others targeted the troops from rooftops viewing the facility and left one officer killed and 42 injured including 8 critical conditions,” said Col. Ahmed Ali, official spokesman of the Egyptian armed forces.
“The military and police did not move to confront the protesters; they were securing a military facility as the rally continued to intimidate them,” said Ali, who explained that “live ammunition attacks on military facilities gives us the right to immediately engage.”
He added: “Rumors claim that the military and police have killed children, and a religious party’s Facebook page published old photos of children killed by the Syrian military.”
State-owned and independent television channels played videos taken by military helicopters of protesters hurling rocks and solid objects at security forces as they took cover on the roofs of surrounding buildings. Other Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated channels continued to play footage taken of dozens of dead bodies received at the rally hospital.
“The military thinks this is over, I tell them it’s not: Today’s massacre will only lead to further escalation, and we will not retreat,” said Karim Mohamed, a Cairo University lecturer who pledged to not leave his position among the Muslim Brotherhood supporters.
Mohannad Sabry is an Egyptian journalist based in Cairo. He has written for McClatchy Newspapers and The Washington Times, served as managing editor of Global Post's reporting fellowship Covering the Revolution, in Cairo, and contributed to its special reports "Tahrir Square" and "Egypt: The Military, the People." On Twitter: @mmsabry