‘It was a massacre’, witnesses to Cairo killings say
Investigation into events of July 8th points to co-ordinated assault by security forces on group of largely peaceful and unarmed civilians
An Egyptian flag stained with blood flutters over members of the Muslim Brotherhood and supporters of deposed Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi as they shout slogans during a protest outside the Raba El-Adwyia mosque in Cairo on July 8th. Photograph: Reuters
Army soldiers wear gas masks before clashes with members of the Muslim Brotherhood and supporters of deposed Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi at Republican Guard headquarters in Nasr City, a suburb of Cairo, on July 8th. Photograph: Reuters
At 3.17am on Monday, July 8th, Dr Yehia Moussa prepared to kneel outside the Republican Guard club in east Cairo for dawn prayers. For a few more hours, Moussa would remain the official spokesman for the Egyptian health ministry. But he was at the club that day in a personal capacity. Along with about 2,000 Muslim Brotherhood supporters, Moussa had camped outside the gated compound in protest at the removal of President Mohamed Morsi, whom they then believed was imprisoned inside.
Like everyone else, Moussa knelt with his back to the barbed-wire fence protecting the entrance to the club. A few feet away were Reda Mohamedi, an education lecturer at al-Azhar University, and beyond him Dr Yasser Taha, an Azhar biochemistry professor. All three were friends from university days, and had shared a tent that night.
Within the hour, Taha would be dead with a bullet in his neck and Mohamedi unconscious, a bullet through his thigh. Moussa would have gunshot wounds in both legs and have lost most of his right index finger.
All three were victims of Egypt’s bloodiest state-led massacre since the fall of Hosni Mubarak, in which, according to official figures, at least 51 people were killed by security forces and at least 435 injured. Two policemen and one soldier were also killed.
The military has said the assault on the protesters was provoked by a terrorist attack. At about 4am, the army says, 15 armed motorcyclists approached the Republican Guard club’s compound. The army said they fired shots, that people attempted to break into the compound, and that the soldiers had no choice but to defend their property.
But a week-long investigation – including interviews with 31 witnesses, local people and medics, as well as video analysis – found no evidence of the motorcyclist attack and points to a very different narrative, in which the security forces launched a co-ordinated assault on a group of largely peaceful and unarmed civilians.
The army turned down four requests to interview soldiers who were at the scene. A spokesman did provide footage of at least three pro-Morsi supporters using some form of firearm some time after the start of the massacre. But the earliest act of provocation the army has been able to prove – a protester throwing stones – comes at 4.05am, more than half an hour after most witnesses agree the camp came under attack.
Many of the Morsi supporters outside the Republican Guard headquarters shortly after 3am on Monday had been camped there since the previous Friday. They had blocked off Salah Salem Street, one of Cairo’s main thoroughfares, and set up tents. On the first day of the sit-in, three protesters had been shot dead by state officials. But by 3.17am on Monday, when the imam called the camp to prayer, all was calm. Women and children strolled among the tents. A platoon of soldiers stood idly behind the fence.
A few dozen people manned the barricades pro-Morsi protesters had erected on either side of the sit-in, 300m up the road in both directions. Others were still asleep. But most gathered to pray – filling the junction between Salah Salem and Tayaran, the half-mile-long side street that leads all the way to the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque, the site of an even larger pro-Morsi sit-in.
“It was so quiet,” said Dr Mostafa Hassanein, a young medic on overnight duty who walked back to Rabaa from the sit-in at around 3am to catch some sleep. “People were praying. The army was quiet too. Some of them were talking to protesters at the wire.”
What happened next is highly disputed. But most witnesses agree an attack on the protest started shortly before 3.30am, as the worshippers knelt for the second and final time.
“At the second kneel of the prayers,” said Moussa, in testimony corroborated by many others at the scene, “we could hear noises from the sides of the sit-in. So the imam interrupted his du’a [a religious invocation] and finished the prayers very quickly.”
At either end of the demonstration, the watchmen on the barricades began to clang together pieces of metal – an alarm used during the 2011 revolution to warn protesters of an imminent attack.
Two hundred metres to the west, high up in a penthouse apartment, Seif Gamal woke. An engineer in his 40s who describes himself as unaffiliated to any political movement, Gamal and his family had been unnerved by the protesters’ presence. Now he looked outside to see what was causing the alarm.
Advancing eastwards up Salah Salem Street, past the Mostafa mosque, were several armoured police vehicles, followed by armed men. “Many armoured police vehicles were coming with many soldiers,” said Gamal, whose name has been changed to avoid reprisals from state security. “They came slowly and stopped 100m short of the barricades before starting to shoot a lot of teargas – followed, around two minutes later, by a lot of firearms.” Gamal said it was unclear at this stage whether the men were firing live rounds.
Realising what he was witnessing, he fetched a camera and began recording the scene. The time on his watch, he said, was 3.26am. The footage was uploaded by a friend to YouTube. When it begins, the air is already thick with police teargas, and protesters can be seen gathering at the western barricade to see what is going on.
On the opposite side of the sit-in, protesters rising from dawn prayers were sprinting to the eastern barricades, near the Sayeda Safiya mosque – where a similar assault was taking place.
“When we finished the prayers, we rushed to the source[s] of the sound, because we thought it was thugs,” said Mohamedi. “But when we got there, we found it wasn’t thugs but security forces shooting teargas. The teargas was coming from vehicles and soldiers were standing behind. Then the soldiers started marching towards us firing.”
Gamal is adamant that the attack was unprovoked. “I’m sure of that,” he said. “The police shot first. I didn’t see any motorbikes, and I didn’t hear any gunshots before.” He added that sticks were the only weapons he had seen the protesters holding. “It was not a reaction to an attack. There was no attack from the demonstrators. They were praying. The police came slowly and surely towards the demonstrators. It was a plan.”
Gamal’s account is disputed by two residents who live further down the road. Noha Asaad, cited in US media, said security forces responded with gunfire after protesters guarding the western barricades used birdshot.
Her neighbour Mirna el-Helbawy, a journalist who was also interviewed by many western outlets, agreed “it was obvious” those in the sit-in fired first. But it is unclear how either resident would have been able to see how the fighting started. The medics at the makeshift field hospital half a mile away in Rabaa al-Adawiya said the first corpse arrived there at around 3.45am. Yet Helbawy told the Guardian she may not have looked down from her balcony until 3.46am, by which time – according to her tweet time-stamped at 3.42am – firing had already started, calling into question whether she would have been able to work out who fired first.
Asaad said she did not look outside before at least 3.55am, while her original witness statement on Facebook said the fighting started at 4.15am.
Ninety seconds into Gamal’s video - by his reckoning at around 3.28am - one protester can be seen firing what looks like a single-shot firearm towards security forces. But the sound on the footage shows this is clearly not the first shot.
Taha Hussein Khaled, an English teacher, had travelled down from Kafr el-Sheikh, an industrial city in the north, for the sit-in. When the clanging started, he was one of the first to rush to the western edge of the site, fearing the protesters were under attack from anti-Morsi civilians. But reaching the barricade, Khaled realised the attackers were far more threatening: state security officials firing first teargas and then, he said, live ammunition.
“We stood our ground ... [but] eventually the teargas became too much so we started to fall back,” he said. “I went through the bushes in the middle of the road to avoid being seen. And that’s when I was shot. At 3.40. I was running up Salah Salem Street, planning to turn right up Tayaran Street. Then I was shot through my left thigh.” A few metres behind him, Yehia Mahy Mahfouz, a teacher from Sohag, a small southern city, decided to hold his ground as police and soldiers advanced. “As they [security officials] approached, I remained in place,” he said. “I wanted to tell them that there were women and children praying. Then a soldier hit me with his gun. I felt dizzy and I fell on the ground. Around nine soldiers surrounded me and beat me with sticks.”
In Gamal’s video, one captured pro-Morsi protester can be seen being beaten by security officials.
Back at the centre of the sit-in, outside the club entrance, there was pandemonium. Parents scurried around trying to find their children. Those who had been asleep emerged from their tents to hear Mohamed Wahdan, a senior Muslim Brotherhood member, using the imam’s microphone to ask the soldiers to have mercy on a peaceful protest.
Nearby, from about 3.30am, 30 protesters including Moussa formed a human chain along the fence protecting the entrance to the club.
“We wanted to make sure that nobody threw any rocks or bottles to provoke them,” he said. “After about two or three minutes, the soldiers in front of the Republican Guard club started to put on their gas masks. Then two central security [riot police] vehicles came out of the Republican Guard building. They [the officers inside] were also wearing gas masks. They started to shoot teargas bombs to the far ends of the site first. And then they started to fire horizontally at human height level. Some people got hit [by the canisters].”