The protest at Ramses Square was large and exuberant. A group of young men bounced up and down in a circle to the rhythm of a tabla — ultras style — promising to give the Interior Ministry hell. A middle-aged woman reassured someone on the phone that she wasn’t the only woman at the protest, and that it was calm. At this point the only assault was coming from men spraying water at people’s faces.
Thousands of supporters of deposed President Mohamed Morsi planned more than 20 marches from around Cairo after Friday prayers, congregating at Ramses Square.
Behind Ramses Square is the Azbakeya Police Station, a multistory lump whose roof is level with the October 6 flyover that runs past it. A group of youths began marching towards the station chanting against the Interior Ministry. It was difficult to identify what group, if any, they belonged to: Young and trendy with long hair, they didn’t fit the profile of the average pro-Morsi protester and his middle-aged sartorial conservatism. In addition, they were carrying a large brightly carried flag with a skull and crossbones on it against a yellow background.
As they approached the police station, a small group of plain-clothed citizens standing with a couple of armed policemen visibly stiffened and began moving about. Above them, on the police station’s roof, a man carrying a rifle watched silently. More figures emerged next to him, including one man in a black mask and another in a motorbike helmet. Several were armed.
It didn’t take too long for things to deteriorate. Some of the hotheaded youths began chanting polite invectives against the men on the roof but got no reaction. Then the rock-throwing started, and the group of men standing next to the police station grew suddenly and dramatically. Throughout this, the other protesters, some 200 or so, were desperately trying to make the stone-throwers leave, chanting “go back” and forming a human cordon, but their efforts were ignored.
The descent into all out violence was, as usual, sudden and shocking, despite being so clearly inevitable. It is similar to being caught out by darkness after watching a sunset.
There was an altercation between some of the hotheaded youths and the civilians watching them, and then rocks came raining down on the pro-Morsi crowd. The rocks turned into fireworks that turned into gunshots that turned into chaos, in the space of minutes.
Soon local residents were involved. A man was raced away on a motorbike followed by female relatives, huge women with vivid blonde home dye jobs who walked through the pro-Morsis, screaming curses at them fearlessly. The motorbike subsequently returned, and the driver’s vest was covered in blood on his back.
Residents of the Azbakeya area emerged and the stone throwing began in earnest against a soundtrack of what sounded like machine gun fire interrupted by intermittent single shots. All this has become something of a normal sight in Egypt after three years of its political trysts being played out on the street. What was not normal was the sight of three men clumsily slipping down a tree with great haste. Even in Egypt in present times, the sight of a man hanging perilously from a branch while another slides down its trunk is unusual.
They were escaping gunfire. On the bridge above us, a march had arrived from neighboring Zamalek and was now stopped. People on the ground urged it to turn around rather than walk into the gunfire from the police station, but the demonstrators signaled that they couldn’t: There was gunfire behind them, too.
Desperate to escape, they began jumping off the bridge. There was a small pile of pebbles approximately under the bridge, and the first of them aimed for that. It was a terrible and surreal sight, seeing them drop to the ground. Very few of them stood up after they landed, and had to be carried away on motorbikes, their bodies limp. Eventually someone worked a cable on the bridge loose and people started shimmying down it. As they became more desperate people fell. A man in his late 50s using the tree nearby crashed to the ground when a branch broke and lay there, immobile. Others were too frightened to jump and just stood there as the gunfire intensified in front of them.
Then they started running, crashing into each other, forcing those in front to run into the unknown ahead as from behind them the sound of gunfire got louder. Eventually three police vans materialized, slowly trundling forward. Four armed policemen walked beside them, lackadaisically almost, their weapons held up vertically in front of their chests. The vehicles stopped as those on the ground fled for cover. The sound of gunfire reverberated around the bridge.
The situation played out for hours, only changing in intensity. Toward Tahrir Square there was a group of local residents assembled; apparently a Morsi supporter had been chanting for the Ikhwan. A man fulminated: “We are all Muslims here. There is no Muslim Brotherhood amongst us.”