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Deaths deepen Egypt's divisions

Support for and anger towards army after the deaths of 51 in Cairo highlight sense of two competing realities in Egypt.

Last Modified: 08 Jul 2013 23:16
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A wounded supporter of Morsi holds empty bullet casings and the Quran [Reuters]

Cairo - The coffins came out of the morgue every 10 minutes or so, carried by weary-looking men in a seemingly endless procession of victims from Monday morning’s deadly shooting outside the Republican Guard headquarters.

As dusk approached there were still dozens of people outside the morgue in central Cairo, hoping to collect the bodies of relatives and bury them before sunset, according to Muslim tradition. A group of women broke into tears and wails when a relative emerged to tell them their son was among those killed.

Fifty-one people died in the shootings, and another 435 injured, according to Egypt’s health ministry. An employee at the morgue said he had seen more than 50 bodies, all of them shot dead or asphyxiated.

The shooting started around dawn, as supporters of the deposed president, Mohamed Morsi, began prayers.

"He knelt to pray, the imam said 'God is great,' and they were shot immediately," said Ahmed Salah, who was collecting the body of his brother, Saeed Salah, a teacher. “The first round of bullets brought down a number of people. And the second round, it hit the people who were trying to help.”

Al Jazeera talks to an Egyptian doctor about the Cairo attack victims

Salah showed Al Jazeera a death certificate showing his brother was shot in the back. Several other families had papers containing similar details.

There was widespread frustration with the Egyptian media, which largely focused instead on the two army officers who had died rather than the dozens of civilians. There was anger, too, towards the army and the defence minister, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

"This is the first time they’ve shot Egyptians," said Mohamed Zeidan, waiting for his cousin’s body. "Every day they say they are defending Egypt. Now they have been proven liars."

‘These forces were harassed’

The exact details of Monday’s shooting will probably never be known, and almost none of the witness accounts can be verified.

Seemingly everyone spoken to at a pro-Morsi rally in Nasr City has bullet casings, which they claim to have collected from the scene of the killings. Markings on the cartridges show they were made in Egypt, but it is impossible to prove they were fired at protesters on Monday.

Three people showed Al Jazeera photographs of dead children on their mobile phones, alleged victims of Monday’s violence. But the photographs were taken last winter - and in Syria, not Egypt.

Monday's violence left at least 51 people dead [Al Jazeera/Gregg Carlstrom]

But the details at this point are almost irrelevant: the killings have further deepened the divisions here, and the sense that there are two competing realities in Egypt.

Morsi’s supporters and the Muslim Brotherhood claim that hundreds were killed, and that many of them were women and children, claims refuted by the Egyptian health ministry. Morsi’s opponents, meanwhile, describe the attackers as "terrorists", and say that the victims were mostly soldiers who were ambushed.

Anecdotally at least, the attack seems to have boosted support for the Egyptian army among anti-Morsi supporters, by allowing officers to portray themselves as a bulwark against extremism. At a news conference on Monday, army spokesman Ahmed Ali said soldiers were attacked with guns and petrol bombs, and fired in self-defence.

"The army and the police did not move to deal with the protesters. They were doing their essential job of guarding a military installation," said Ali. "These forces were harassed, and that led to this situation."

‘We will not be silent’

Egypt’s political factions find themselves in the familiar position of scrambling to respond to events outside their control.

The most significant response came from the salafi Nour party, the second-largest political party in Egypt, which announced soon after the shootings that it was suspending its involvement in a new interim government.

Nour called for early presidential elections after the mass anti-Morsi protests on June 30, a move which helped the opposition deny claims that it was opposed to political Islam in general.

"We decided to withdraw immediately from all negotiations," said Nader Bakkar, a spokesman for the party. "We will not be silent."

Other parties, which have aligned themselves with the army over the past week, kept reactions muted. The June 30 Front, a newly-formed group which includes the organisers of the anti-Morsi protests, issued a statement which failed to even mention the dozens of people killed.

The National Salvation Front, which was the largest formal opposition bloc during Morsi’s administration, expressed its "deep sorrow and pain" over the killings, but stopped short of criticising the army.

"We request an urgent and just investigation into the tragic events,” the bloc said in a statement. “We strongly condemn any attempts to attack Egyptian army installations, or its soldiers.”

The front, and various other opposition groups, refused to directly speak to Al Jazeera.

Monday’s violence comes as Egypt’s interim president, Adly Mansour, is trying to cobble together a road map for the transitional period, which will include a new cabinet, a constitutional referendum and presidential elections within six months.

The killings did not seem to galvanise widespread support for the Brotherhood, at least not immediately; the crowds at pro-Morsi sit-ins across the capital remained fairly small.

But the deepening fissures within the anti-Morsi coalition could be an obstacle to setting up a viable government and selling it to the public.

Follow Gregg Carlstrom on Twitter: @glcarlstrom

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Al Jazeera
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