CAIRO — In a matter of hours Wednesday, two peaceful protest camps in Cairo turned into unrecognizable war zones. And the violence is still under way.
“I think what we’re seeing right now is just the beginning of what is promising to be a very, very long and bloody battle as the interim government and the security forces try to regain control of the streets,” CNN’s Arwa Damon reported from Cairo.
At least 149 people have been killed in clashes between Egyptian security forces and supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsy, state TV reported. More than 1,400 have been wounded.
The Muslim Brotherhood said earlier that 200 Morsy supporters were killed and more than 8,000 were injured. But the party has given exaggerated figures in the past, only to revise them later.
In another development, Mohammed ElBaradei resigned as vice president of foreign affairs, state-run Nile TV reported.
Egypt declared a month-long state of emergency beginning at 4 p.m. local time (10 a.m. ET), according to state television. A curfew was also established in several cities including Cairo, from 7 p.m. Wednesday to 6 a.m. Thursday — and all violators will be jailed, state news reported.
The violence began with Egyptian security forces storming the two massive makeshift camps filled with Morsy supporters, bulldozing tents and escorting away hundreds of protesters.
Chaos ensued. Many protesters refused to leave, even in the face of bulldozers and surrounded by the injured and dead. “They said they’re prepared to die,” CNN’s Reza Sayah reported from Cairo.
“It’s an open war,” one protester told Sayah.
Along with smoke, bursts of rapid gunfire continued to fill the air. It was unclear who had the weapons, and who was shooting at whom. People could be heard wailing.
State TV reported that snipers from the Muslim Brotherhood — Morsy’s party — were exchanging gunfire with Egyptian security forces near a university building.
Sky News cameraman Mick Deane was killed, the UK-based news channel reported. Deane had worked for Sky for 15 years. The rest of the team was unhurt.
Reuters photojournalist, Asmaa Waguih was shot and wounded Wednesday covering the clashes, the news agency said. She is being treated in a hospital.
Habiba Abdel Aziz of Gulf News, in Egypt in a personal capacity having celebrated the Eid holiday, was also killed, editor-at-large Francis Matthew told said.
‘Walking on the blood of the victims’
“I have personally never seen this much bloodshed in what, according to what we’ve seen over the past six weeks, had been a peaceful demonstration,” Sayah said.
Visiting makeshift hospitals, a news crew was “literally walking on the blood of the victims,” he said.
Security forces “literally pushed the doctors” out of a hospital “at gunpoint,” one witness told said.
One man who appeared bloodied said his friends were killed.
The fighting wasn’t limited to Cairo. Morsy supporters besieged various churches in Sohag, setting fire to Saint George’s Church, a tour bus and a police car, Egypt’s state-run EgyNews reported.
Interior Ministry sources said that Muslim Brotherhood supporters also attacked three police stations around Egypt.
Naguib Sawiris, an Egyptian billionaire who helped found the anti-Morsy Free Egyptian Party, said his party had video of Muslim Brotherhood members “shooting machine guns on civilians, on police. So anyone who wants to call this a peaceful demonstration would be wrong.”
He also insisted, “This is no war zone.”
But Ahmed Mustafa, Muslim Brotherhood spokesman, said from London that Sawiris was trying to misrepresent video of masked people with weapons.
The Muslim Brotherhood also said police were throwing Molotov cocktails at makeshift clinics.
The Interior Ministry said security forces did not use gunfire and instead were attacked by “terrorist elements” inside the camps.
“Egyptian security forces are committed to the utmost self-restraint in dealing with the protesters,” the ministry said.
Representatives of both sides insisted they oppose violence.
“Today is a tragic day in Egypt,” said Abdul Mawgoud Dardery, part of the pro-Morsy Anti-Coup National Alliance.
He blamed “corrupt elements” in the Egyptian army, calling their actions a “crime against humanity” and “state terrorism.”
“The whole international community should not only condemn this but should not have any dealing with the coup,” he demanded.
But Shehab Wagih, spokesman for the Free Egyptian Party, spoke out in support of the military.
“There is no other resolution when someone is establishing a state inside your state,” he said.
“We believe in human rights,” he insisted. “But at the same time, we cannot accept the idea of having a state inside a state.”
The raids began around dawn. Within three hours, forces had cleared the smaller of the two camps — the Nahda camp, near the Cairo University campus. All that remained were shreds of torn-down tents.
But the larger protest, near the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque in eastern Cairo, proved trickier, with forces facing heavy resistance. The military called in special forces. Protester Hassan Al Qabana described it as a “full-on assault.”
The government blocked all roads leading to the Rabaa camp and suspended rail service to Cairo. The Muslim Brotherhood claimed the suspension was an attempt to prevent more of its members from streaming into the city.
Morsy supporters flooded a bridge leading to Rabaa al-Adawiya square, video from state-run Nile TV showed. Some of the protesters clashed with security forces.
In an effort to fend off security forces, protesters had broken off tree branches and dragged pipes and planks to build makeshift barriers in the streets near the Rabaa camp.
Mothers and fathers whisked away children, gas masks on their faces.
They insisted they had no weapons and were demonstrating peacefully.
But the Interior Ministry said more than 200 were arrested, caught with weapons and ammunition.
Government says kids used as human shields
For six chaotic weeks, Morsy supporters had amassed at the two camps — refusing to budge until Morsy was reinstated.
They lived and slept in tents. Vendors offered everything from haircuts to masks. Children played in inflatable castles and splashed in kiddie pools.
The government has accused the protesters of packing the sites with their children to use them as human shields.
The raid Wednesday was not unexpected.
Since the Muslim holy month of Ramadan ended last week, the protesters had hunkered down and waited for the crackdown that the government had long hinted at.
They fortified their sites with sandbags, tires and stacks of bricks, bracing for the raid.
The protests started soon after Egypt’s military toppled Morsy in a coup last month.
Hundreds have been killed and thousands have been injured in recent weeks, either in clashes between opposing protesters or in clashes between protesters and Egyptian security forces.
Last month, Information Minister Durriya Sharaf el-Din said the gatherings were a threat to national security and caused traffic congestion.
And two weeks ago, Mansour issued orders in the event of a possible “state of emergency,” the EGYnews website reported.
“State of emergency” is a loaded term in Egypt. Former President Hosni Mubarak ruled for 30 years under an emergency decree that barred unauthorized assembly, restricted freedom of speech and allowed police to jail people indefinitely.
Morsy became Egypt’s first democratically elected president in 2012, a year after popular protests forced Mubarak to resign and end his three-decade rule.
But a year into Morsy’s term, many Egyptians wanted him out, too. They said the Western-educated Islamist, aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood movement, was not inclusive and had failed to deliver on the people’s aspirations for freedom and social justice.
Morsy was accused of authoritarianism and trying to force the Brotherhood’s Islamic agenda onto the nation’s laws. He was also criticized by many Egyptians frustrated with rampant crime and a struggling economy that hadn’t shown improvement since Mubarak resigned.
Supporters say Morsy repeatedly offered Cabinet positions to secularists and liberals, only to get repeatedly rejected.
Since taking power from Morsy, Egypt’s military has installed an interim civilian government with Mansour as interim president.
But Egypt’s generals, the ones who oversaw Morsy’s ouster and led the country for a year after Mubarak’s resignation, still wield significant power.
The list of accusations against Morsy include: collaborating with the militant group Hamas to carry out hostile acts, attacking law enforcement buildings, officers and soldiers, storming prisons, vandalizing buildings and deliberately burning a prison.
He hasn’t been seen since he was pushed out of office.
“All presidents make mistakes but you don’t have the army to remove them,” the Anti-Coup National Alliance’s Dardery complained Wednesday. “… What are we telling to the rest of the Arab world, the Muslim world — that bullets are better than ballots? We don’t want to buy into this. We would like to avoid extremism, we would like to avoid terrorism, and the only way is democracy back on track, respecting the will of the Egyptian people, in the presidency, in the constitution.”
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