Egyptian soldiers fired on hundreds of supporters of ousted President Mohammed Mursi before dawn Monday as they were praying outside the facility where he was believed to be detained, dozens of witnesses said. Egypt’s military said armed assailants fired on the soldiers first.
Separately, former finance minister Samir Radwan has emerged as the favourite to become Egypt’s interim prime minister, senior political sources said on Monday, as the military-backed transitional administration seeks a way out of political deadlock.
Radwan said he had not yet been approached. Interim head of state Adli Mansour has been trying since last week to form a temporary government that can guide the country towards fresh elections at a time of growing unrest.
In Monday’s clash in Cairo, at least 51 civilians were killed, all or most of them shot, and more than 300 wounded, doctors and health officials said.
Security officials said one police officer died as well.
The shooting was the single deadliest episode of violence since the 2011 revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s longtime autocratic leader.
It immediately escalated the nearly week-old confrontation between the generals who forced out Mursi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president, and Mursi’s Islamist supporters in the streets.In an early sign that the mass shooting had undercut important support for the military’s ouster of Mursi, Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayyeb, the country’s top Muslim cleric, threatened to go into seclusion until the violence ended.
The grand imam, who participated in talks on a post-Mursi transitional government, said in a statement broadcast on Egyptian state television: ‘‘I might be forced to enter into a retreat in my home until everyone takes responsibility for protecting the sanctity of blood and preventing the country from a civil war.’’
The military said its soldiers had fired in response to an attack by gunmen from a ‘‘terrorist group’’ who had attempted to storm the facility, according to Ahram Online, the website of Egypt’s leading newspaper.
Dozens of Islamists who had gathered in vigil for Mursi denied there was any provocation for the attack. Two bystanders who had supported Mursi’s ouster also said that the demonstrators were unarmed and ran in terror as the attack began.
Bullet holes in cars, lampposts and corrugated metal barriers indicated that gunfire was coming from the top of a nearby building where the sandbag barriers around makeshift gun emplacements were visible. Bullet casings on the ground and collected by Islamist demonstrators bore the stamp of the Egyptian army.
But Egyptian state television showed film of a pro-Mursi protester firing what appeared to be a homemade handgun at advancing soldiers from behind a corner about 250 yards away. The footage was in daylight, hours after the initial attack began.
A witness who lived nearby said he saw two men with similar weapons among the protesters.
Another video broadcast on state television, also in daylight and so hours after the attack had begun, showed a masked man among the pro-Mursi demonstrators.
The protesters, witnesses and video footage all appeared to portray the pro-Mursi demonstrators as attempting to fight back against the soldiers by throwing rocks.
Early in the morning, Egyptian state media sent out a news alert saying that an army lieutenant had been killed and 200 ‘‘armed individuals’’ were captured, then hours later reported that there were also dozens of civilian casualties.
There were pools of blood on the pavement. Some of the blood and bullet holes were hundreds of yards from the walls of the facility’s guard house, suggesting that the soldiers continued firing as the demonstrators fled.
Ibrahim el-Sheikh, a neighbor and a brother of a Cairo-based New York Times employee, said the police officer, Mohamed el-Mesairy, was killed by military fire.
The officer was hiding in a car in the parking lot of a building in a side street that the Mursi supporters were using for shelter. Video footage taken from a window above showed gunfire from the advancing soldiers hitting the car.
El-Sheikh, who signed a petition and joined protests for Mursi’s ouster, said he and others carried the officer’s body out of his car. ‘‘He did not have a head any more,’’ he said.
The Nasr City hospital, a few minutes’ drive from the scene of the shooting, began receiving hundreds of victims around 4 a.m. and at least 40 were dead, according to Bassem al-Sayed, a surgeon. The doctor said all the victims he saw were men with gunshot wounds.
The emergency wards and the intensive care unit were full of patients and distraught relatives. Near the emergency room, two dozen men lined up to donate blood.
Al-Sayed said he had seen similar scenes in the hospital only once before: in January 2011, when Egyptians began their revolt against President Hosni Mubarak.
‘‘This is worse,’’ he said.
The survivors, who were shot in the head, chest or arms, or who had been hit in the face by birdshot pellets, all told roughly the same story. They were attacked without warning with tear gas and gunfire near the end of morning prayers.
Some said soldiers and police officers attacked from opposite sides. Others said that because of the dark, they were not sure which security branch their attackers belonged to.
‘‘We were praying,’’ said Mahmoud Gomaa Ahmed, 33, who was wounded in the chest. ‘‘Before the prayer, nothing had happened at all,’’ he said, responding to accusations by military officials that a group of ‘‘terrorists’’ had attacked the Republican Guard officers’ club.
‘‘There was no one,’’ Ahmed said.
Mahmoud Mabrouk, 42, who was shot in his right arm, said the first rounds were intended to kill. ‘‘It wasn’t for the sake of dispersing us,’’ he said.
It was the second explosion of deadly violence outside the Republican Guard officers’ club since the military intervened on Wednesday to depose Mursi following mass protests against his rule.
Mursi’s supporters believe the former president is being held inside the club, and have held rallies and a sit-in at its gates, demanding his release.
The killings came a day after the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies vowed to broaden their protests against the president’s ouster and U.S. diplomats sought to persuade the Islamist group to accept his overthrow, its officials said. But the killings Monday seemed certain to inject perilous new factors into the country’s fragile political calculus.
Continuing a push for accommodation that began before the removal of Mursi last week, the U.S. diplomats contacted Brotherhood leaders to try to persuade them to re-enter the political process, an Islamist briefed on one of the conversations said on Sunday, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.
‘‘They are asking us to legitimize the coup,’’ the Islamist said, arguing that accepting the removal of an elected president would be the death of Egyptian democracy.
The U.S. Embassy in Cairo declined to comment.
‘‘They opened fire on us while we were praying,’’ Moataz Abu al-Shakra, a 25-year-old electrical engineer, said of the shootings on Monday.
He huddled behind a sheet of corrugated metal riddled with bullet holes that Mursi’s supporters had sought to use as a barricade – anticipating only shotgun pellets, not more powerful ammunition. ‘‘There were snipers on the rooftops,’’ he said.
‘‘It is like they were fighting a war between two countries, not like our army or police,’’ he said. ‘‘They are criminals.’’
Mohamed Farahat, 38, a teacher, said the soldiers had fired tear gas along with the bullets and rushed out to arrest dozens of fleeing demonstrators as well.
Gomaa Gaber, a 53-year-old mechanic with a large blood stain on his shirt, said he threw himself onto a younger relative, Ali Mohamed Said, 24, to try to protect him. But Said had already been shot in the chest.
‘‘He died in my arms,’’ he said.
Although by morning some people carried sticks or makeshift clubs, all said that the demonstrators were unarmed. El-Sheikh and another neighbor who opposed Mursi and supported his ouster said the same.
‘‘Our only weapons were bottles of water and prayer rugs,’’ said Gamal Ali, 37, a teacher.
Even as both sides continued their street demonstrations on Sunday, Egypt’s new leaders continued their effort to form an interim government. Squabbles about a choice for prime minister spilled out into the open on Saturday, exposing splits among the country’s newly ascendant political forces.
New York Times with Reuters
The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.