On Saturday afternoon, hours after scores died in clashes with police and armed men, Muslim Brotherhood protesters at Rabea al-Adaweya were trying hard to get through another day of their sit-in.
At the main field hospital, nurses and doctors were busy piling up stocks of medical supplies donated since the beginning of the clashes on Friday night. A group of protesters were cleaning the place as the dead had all been sent to morgues and the injured, accompanied by their families, to hospitals.
Outside, an air of normalcy was beginning to prevail. Some were napping to kill the brutal heat until the sun set. Men with water sprayers on their backs were duly spraying protesters to freshen them up. The more than three-week-old sit-in looked like it was business as usual, perhaps a sign of its perseverance and insistence on the goal of reinstating President Mohamed Morsi, ousted by the military on July 3.
But the sit-in alone is not enough pressure.
“We were marching to commemorate the victory of the Badr Battle of Ramadan 17,” said Ashour Othman, a Brotherhood protester from Sharqeya. This battle, in Saudi Arabia’s Hijaz, was key in the history of Islam.
Othman said he was on the frontlines of the clashes on Friday night. “We were supposed to meet other marches and gather eventually in Ramses Square.”
He said that as the march neared October 6 Bridge, it became apparent that plainclothes “thugs” were waiting for them in the area. “They called us terrorists and we called them thugs and then the violence started.”
Othman never gave a definitive answer when asked which side started firing at the other, in a battle that medical sources from within the sit-in confirmed involved live ammunition and birdshot. “We were being provoked by their calling us terrorists. Some of us were able to restrain ourselves. But we were a big number.”
Badawy Shaker, from Minya, was less ambiguous about what the purpose of the march was and how the violence started. “The police fired tear gas at us when they saw us advancing on Nasr Street. We had consolidated a piece of land, although the stage in the Rabea sit-in told us repeatedly not to set up tents there.”
Shaker explained that the violence was mostly committed by plainclothes policemen and “thugs,” while army soldiers sat back next to the nearby war memorial. “We directed our laser lights toward the minaret of the [nearby] mosque and found two thugs firing at us from there. We hit them and they fell from above.”
He added that he and other protesters caught two thugs firing at them from a nearby garden and figured that one of them was Christian. He claimed that these two men were now dead.
Othman also said that when they captured one of the attackers, they discovered that the weapon he carried had the “ARE (Arab Republic of Egypt)” sign, which meant it belonged to the government.
It was impossible to verify whether the armed civilians fighting alongside the police were actually police, but like police they managed to work together to effectively overpower a group of protesters.
According to Rabea al-Adaweya’s official count, 127 were killed, of which 61 are lying clinically dead in hospitals.
Amro Gamal, a doctor at the field hospital, explained that he started treating cases of tear gas suffocation as of 11 pm. He and Noha Kassem, another field doctor, stressed the “different nature” of the gas, suggesting it was nerve gas because patients suffered strange palpitations besides the usual choking.
At around 12:30 pm, people wounded with birdshot started appearing in the hospital, Gamal said, and slightly afterwards, people hit by live ammunition. “People were shot in the head, the neck, and the chest,” Gamal said. To give a sense of scale, Gamal said that of about 500 cases he saw, 200 were affected by tear gas, 200 by live ammunition, and 100 by birdshot. “It wasn’t like anything I’ve seen before.”
In a press conference earlier on Saturday, Minister of Interior Mohamed Ibrahim denied that his soldiers and officers shot anyone in the chest, saying they only fired tear gas to stop protesters reaching the October 6 Bridge. But the death cases documented by Mada Masr earlier that morning did little to corroborate this account.
“The whole square was turned into a field hospital,” Brotherhood spokesperson Ahmad Aref said during a press conference on Saturday afternoon in Rabea. He added that hospitals denied the injured entry and that ambulances were prevented from reaching the sit-in. Kassem said the field hospital operated at four times its capacity.
At their press conference, the Muslim Brotherhood were ready to show the world the atrocious nature of the crime committed against them. As if images of dead bodies lined up by the dozen in the field hospital and images of head and chest injuries were not telling enough, dramatic background music was added to the slide show. As soon as it finished, the crowd erupted in tears, chanting, “Allah suffices, and he is the best guardian.”
“I am here to tell the story of those not covered by the media because they don’t look as good as the Ettehadiya protesters,” Aref said, defiantly.
As the killing was happening on the Nasr Road near Rabea al-Adaweya, crowds outside the Ettehadiya Presidential Palace celebrated the army’s ouster of Morsi. They had taken to the streets in response to Armed Forces Chief Commander Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s call for public gatherings to mandate him to fight “terrorism.”
Aref said that the “terrorists” were those shot yesterday with the full support of the state. Him, Shaker, and Othman said that Al-Azhar University and particularly the School of Sciences were used by thugs to shoot at protesters.
“I am surprised that Sheikh Al-Azhar did not mind or condemn the use of the university premises to shoot protesters,” Aref said.
Aref and others at the press conference vowed to continue protesting peacefully despite the violence they are facing, just as Gehad al-Haddad, another Brotherhood spokesperson, told Mada Masr a week earlier.
“The decision we have to come to terms with is that we have become the punchbag. We have to take the bullets and die quietly so the rest can continue,” Haddad said.
Outside the conference, as the clock ticked toward the fast-breaking hour, members of the sit-in were queuing for their daily meal. The deaths have not stopped Ramadan and the routines of the sit-in from living on.