The clouds of tear gas were so thick that from behind police lines it was hard to see what happened in the protesters’ makeshift camp. But the Egyptian security forces lowered the barrels of their assault rifles and fired staccato bursts again and again in their direction. So began Egypt’s latest, and potentially its worst, day of rage. Already the most conservative estimates number about 60 people dead. Sky News has reported that one of its cameramen, the veteran Mick Deane, is among those killed.
We’d known this moment was coming. The Egyptian government installed by the military after the overthrow of the elected Islamist president Mohamed Morsi on July 3 warned repeatedly that the thousands of his backers staging sit-ins these last six weeks would be cleared from the streets. Efforts to mediate a peaceful end, including attempts by the American senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, came to nothing last week. The government said it would wait out the end of the holiday at the end of Ramadan, which passed over the weekend. But no longer.
Just after dawn this morning, I was inside the encampment around the Rabaa al-Adaweyah mosque in the Nasr City district of Cairo. At about 7 a.m., I saw the security forces moving down the road. The black armored cars of the police took the lead, followed by the army’s desert-brown personnel carriers. The protesters panicked. They had built barricades of sandbags and paving stones around the tents that housed perhaps 5,000 Morsi supporters, maybe more. But these were no match for the bulldozers brought in by the security forces.
I positioned myself behind the police lines and, at first, they tolerated me. I was taking photos with my Blackberry and shared my water with one of the commanders. But they wouldn’t let me go back into Rabaa. I tried going around a different street, and cops on an armored personnel carrier waved me back.
Behind the police front lines was a large group of more senior officers, many of them in plainclothes—polo shirts and flak jackets. I saw that they had arrested someone, so I walked over to see what was happening. I also wanted to ask if there was a way into Rabaa, so when I got to the group, I asked if anyone spoke English. Instantly security personnel surrounded me; forceful but not violent at first. They took my phone, my ID. Then they opened my bag and took out my laptop. They opened it, and the password screen appeared. An officer kept asking for my password and I politely refused. This went on for about five minutes intermittently, as I dealt with other officers inquiring about my job and ID. Finally the man I took to be the one in charge—a stout older guy in a black beret—stepped in and demanded the password. I apologized again and declined. So he slapped me hard. Asked for the password again, I declined again, and so he slapped me again. At one point there were several cops punching and slapping me in the head, so I relented and typed in the password. They took a special interest in the file labeled Sisi, with basic reporting on the head of the armed forces, Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sisi. Then they took the laptop away.
There were several cops punching and slapping me in the head so I said okay and typed in the password.
Soon after, an angry cop walked up and punched me in the jaw. Eventually another cop grabbed me by the shirt and started perp-walking me over to a waiting blue paddy wagon. He was proudly announcing to the crowd of cops that I was an American, and a couple of times he jabbed me in the face with the hand holding my shirt as he said that.
They put on the zip-tie plastic handcuffs extra tight, and then it was up into the vehicle, where there were a bunch of arrested demonstrators. I saw the cops beat a few of them; one guy was badly stomped and lay on the ground moaning for a while. Eventually, when the count inside the wagon reached about 35, they took off. I had to kneel on the floor in the middle like a lot of others to keep from falling; all the benches that lined the walls were full. It was hot as hell, everyone including me sweating through their shirts and dripping. At one point someone with a free hand was nice enough to use a rag to wipe the sweat off my face.
One man sitting just across from me got caught with a phone. A cop came back and leaned over me as he beat the hell out of the guy. After about 20 minutes we pulled up somewhere and stopped. Some people around me started muttering prayers. We walked out into the bright sun and saw ourselves at the steps of a sports arena. We walked up the stairs and into the arena through the VIP entrance.
We were the second group in. The people in the first group were on their knees in the arena. Riot cops surrounded them. It was clear to those under arrest that they were expecting a lot more prisoners to come. We were all told to kneel, too, in rows. And then someone pulled me out of the group. I stood off to the side for a couple of hours with two other journalists. After initially being detained at around 8 a.m. I was finally released at noon. On the way out, one man from a group of cops asked what had happened, and then said as I was walking away, "Please don't be angry."
Many others, including other journalists, were not so lucky. I was arrested along with an Egyptian freelance photographer, Mahmoud Abou Zeid, and a French freelance photographer, Louis Jammes. They were in the same area during the clashes and also rounded up. Both were beaten after identifying themselves as journalists. Also, in detention, I ran into the award-winning French photo and video journalist Mani. (He doesn't use his real name.) Mani had been on the Rabaa side of the demonstration, trying to film. For what it's worth, he says he saw no weapons on the pro-Morsi side, just rocks and sticks. This was my impression, too. I was on the Rabaa front line just before the fighting started and saw no arms; only sticks, and then fireworks that were launched at the police from the side streets.
Mani speaks Arabic and had his Egyptian press credentials on him. This is important professionally, since many foreign journalists here don't have full accreditation. When Mani explained he was a journalist, the cops dragged him behind a truck, threw him on the ground, kicked and beat him. He's not seriously injured, he said.
While I was in the arena, a demonstrator who'd been shot in the shoulder lay on his side for about an hour on the arena floor. Finally the doctors came and as they brought him up the stairs, he turned around and shouted, "May God let Muslims win." The crowd on the floor responded with a half-hearted murmur of assent.
In Rabaa, in the streets of Cairo and in Upper Egypt, meanwhile, the violence spread. My Egyptian colleague Maged Atef was inside the Rabaa camp as the tear gas canisters rained down. Police loudspeakers promised the Egyptian interior ministry would give safe conduct to anyone who went out peacefully. But Brotherhood leaders shouted, “No! Don’t leave! It’s a trap and they will arrest you!” Women and children were, in fact, moved out of the camp. The gas continued to explode, and then the protesters started throwing Molotov cocktails at the police. Armored cars rolled in closer to the crowd. Members of the Muslim Brotherhood started to deploy in front of them. The gas was unbearable now, and Atef decided to try to get out when he saw two men—what looked like two protesters—carrying guns and shooting at the armored cars. Now Atef was sprinting.
The police loudspeakers grew louder. The Brotherhood supporters were silenced, then the leaders on their makeshift stage started speaking again. “For God we lose our life,” they cried. “Do not leave! Do not leave!” Atef heard shooting but could not tell where it came from. He did not see anyone dead at that point. The police had not yet entered. He heard shooting and screaming. He saw the military vehicles pushing down the barricades, behind which the protestors had put butane gas cylinders, the kind used for cooking throughout Egypt, ready to explode. One of those canisters blew up, apparently killing one person.
Finally Atef got out. Some time later, when he was able to approach the area again, the police were inside, and he saw what he says was “real war with guns.” A group of protestors were holed up inside a hall beside the mosque. High-ranking officers demanded they go out. Then the people in the mosque started shooting, and the police returned fire. Atef is not ashamed to admit that at that point he panicked and ran away.
Across the Nile, protesters near Cairo University had been routed as well, but quickly moved to try to stage a new sit-in in the upscale neighborhood known as Mohandeseen. Sophia Jones, reporting for The Daily Beast, saw a police van engulfed in flames and a single police boot lying on the ground covered with blood.
Jones did not see any weapons on the side of the pro-Morsi protesters, but that gory shoe and burning van suggested the instigation for what happened next. Three armored police vans came barreling down the road firing shotgun pellets out of the turrets normally used to launch teargas. Jones was with two foreign photographers and they were in the middle of the road—easily identifiable as foreign journalists. They heard the sirens blaring and started to run. The gunshots began as they turned the corner to run to safety. The police van—which must have recognized them as foreigners—fired with no warning.
Jones and her companions joined a group of locals and bystanders who were running down the street desperately trying to find open shops where they could shelter. Women shrieked. An old man tripped and fell as he was running. A few young men stopped to help him up. Gunshots echoed down the street, followed by waves of tear gas. People hiding in entryways and enclosed spaces choked as the tear gas wafted in.
On Cairo’s skyline, huge plumes of smoke were billowing into the air. Police stations were reportedly under attack, and being torched by Muslim Brotherhood supporters. In numerous cities outside of Cairo, reports and photos were emerging of Coptic churches set ablaze. Pro-Morsi supporters have been blamed for the attacks as sectarian violence against the religious minority skyrockets.
Egyptian General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has promised to bring order and to his country. Today was the beginning of something—but certainly not the beginning of the end to Egypt’s troubles.
With Sophia Jones in Mohandeseen and Maged Atef in Nasr City.