CAIRO — Crushed, dazed and chanting “Down, down with military rule!” hundreds of supporters of Egypt’s ousted president streamed out of a protest camp that had come to symbolize the resistance of Arab Spring Islamists. It now resembled a war zone — covered in debris, with thick black smoke billowing skyward.
Sitting helplessly on the ground, exhausted by hours of inhaling tear gas, they pondered their next move as Egypt’s bloodiest day in years came to an end.
For more than 12 hours, security forces in black-clad body armor and helmets, backed by snipers, military helicopters and armored vehicles, used bulldozers to sweep away the encampment occupied by supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi. The crackdown set off running street battles in Cairo and other Egyptian cities that left nearly 300 people dead nationwide.
“What was horrifying today were the snipers. The sound of bullets was extremely frightening,” said Mosa’ab Elshamy, a freelance photographer who said he was standing next to a medic who was shot in the head by sniper fire around noon.
“Most of the corpses I saw in the field hospital had been shot in the head or chest,” said Elshamy, who was in the camp for more than six hours during the clashes. In two main morgues, he said he counted 65 bodies.
Located near the Rabbah al-Adawiya Mosque that has served as the epicenter of the pro-Morsi campaign, the tent city was erected six weeks ago to show support for Morsi and demand his reinstatement after his overthrow in a July 3 military coup.
On Wednesday, smoke and flames poured from all corners of the camp, where cars and tents were set alight, along with wood fires set by the protesters in an effort to lessen the impact of tear gas.
It was in stark contrast to the festive mood that had prevailed in recent weeks, when couples got married and clerics took to the stage to announce they saw angels in their dreams that were a sign of impending victory. Posters with Morsi’s image and slogans calling him the “legitimate president” were plastered on tents and light poles, while giant loudspeakers played some of his fiery speeches and women chanted “Morsi is my president.”
During the first hour of Wednesday’s crackdown, which began around 7 a.m., protesters said they tried to stop the bulldozers by lying on the pavement in front of the vehicles.
“We stood in the face of the bulldozers. I was injured in the arm by gunfire,” said a 24-year-engineer, Yasser Mohammed.
Witnesses said the protesters took over a building under construction, where they hurled firebombs down on the troops below.
“We are trying to prevent security forces from going toward the stage and the mosque. They are using live ammunition and we are using rocks and Molotov cocktails,” said Ahmed Shaker, a 28-year-old chemist carrying several beer bottles for that purpose.
“All the people who are here are ready to die,” declared Shaker, the father of a 2-year-old girl, Yassmin. “When they took to the streets they knew it was a possibility and they won’t backtrack. I already wrote my will and gave my wife the number of my bank account and told her who owes us money and who we owe money to. If I have to die I will die.”
At a field hospital set up behind the mosque, Abdullah Sayyed, a 25-year-old doctor, said he was receiving wounded patients every 10 minutes.
“We had hundreds of cases,” he said pointing to shattered glass near the makeshift clinic, which he said had come under fire several times. Inside, pools of blood covered the floors.
Mohammed Magdi, a 29-year-old cardiologist, said “dozens of bodies” had been brought to the clinic.
“We extract bullets and fix broken bones,” said another doctor, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. He said the gunfire came from both snipers and helicopters.
Ahmed Salah, 40, who suffered bullet wounds to the hand and chest, said: “The bullet is still here. I need a surgery to remove it, but I can’t go out.”
Authorities said the encampment had been heavily armed and footage aired on state TV showed security forces uncovering stashes of ammunition and hand guns after storming the site.
As the crackdown came to a close around 7 p.m., hundreds of people streamed through a safe passage left open by security forces for those who were not wanted by authorities.
They included women cloaked in black niqabs that covered all but their eyes, men in long beards, children with their parents, carrying bags, pillows and luggage. Dozens of the injured, their clothes stained with blood, were carried out on stretchers, in wheelchairs or in the arms of friends.
Many broke into tears as they walked wearily or collapsed onto the pavement as sporadic gunfire rang out a short distance away.
“They killed us,” a woman in black Islamic dress shouted hysterically.
Others chanted, “El-Sissi, illegitimate,” in reference to the powerful military chief, Gen. Abdel-Fatah el-Sissi, who removed Morsi from power and had urged Egyptians to take to the streets to show support for the military’s move against the protest camps.
Others, lamenting the killing of a friend or family member, whispered, “No God but Allah.”
Many had taken refuge inside the mosque, which after hours of clashes in its vicinity was turned into a target of sniper fire and tear gas.
“We were locked inside the mosque,” said 27-year-old Abdel-Rahman Ghozlan, carrying a prayer rug on his shoulder. “They were firing tear gas and live ammunition from all around us and we were trapped inside the mosque.”
An hour later, he said, commandos entered and forced them all to leave.
Nearby, a 37-year-old ultra-conservative Salafi Muslim sat on a side street, clutching his injured leg. He said security forces had forced him out of the field hospital. “The medical center was filled with tear gas,” he said, breaking into tears.
Nearby, a man shouted to those around him not to leave, reminding them of the protesters’ pledge: “Do not leave but die here.”