The warnings had been coming for weeks.
But the violent attack by the Egyptian military and police on opposition forces’ main encampment was stunning in its ferocity, an assault that transformed streets into a war zone.
Gunfire crackled as police in flak vests, armed with assault rifles, ran in and out of the Rabaa al-Adawiya protest camp. Plumes of black smoke and white smoke rose from the fires and tear-gas canisters inside. Bulldozers plowed into tents and tore through the protesters’ walls of sandbags.
Two colleagues from The Washington Post’s Cairo bureau and I reached the site just before 8 a.m. Wednesday, about an hour after security forces began raiding the camp where men, women and children have rallied for six weeks, demanding the reinstatement of ousted president Mohamed Morsi.
Violence was spilling into side streets. Police carried a wounded fellow officer past us. Another officer beat a teenager over the head with a handgun before hauling the youth away. A woman implored a police officer not to kill protesters as they shoved back a man who, through tears, said he was trying to get to his younger sister, who was trapped inside Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque.
It wasn’t long before the police opened fire with tear gas and then live ammunition, on spectators, too. Women and men ran down the block, screaming for cover.
“If I see you again, I’ll shoot you in the leg,” a police officer told my colleagues, Sharaf al-Hourani and Mansour Mohamed, and me. Security forces on the roof of a nearby building watched us through binoculars. Two helicopters circled overhead.
We found ourselves trapped between police cordons as pro-Morsi demonstrators marched on a line where hundreds of black-clad police officers faced outward. “With life, with blood, we sacrifice for Islam,” they chanted, until officers opened fire with bullets and tear gas. The rapid fire of automatic guns echoed between buildings as we crouched with neighborhood residents against a wall.
By 11 a.m., a bullet whistled too close, directly over our heads. I have no idea where it came from. At times, it sounded as though the gunfire was coming from all directions, from side streets and the towering apartment blocks.
Sharaf, Mansour and I dropped to the pavement and crawled downhill into a low alley shielded on two sides from the street. We lay there with two young Egyptian reporters as barrage after barrage of gunfire resounded a few hundred yards away, where police appeared to be clashing with protesters.
Young men wheeled four metal carts down the street, each containing a wounded man; they approached the cordon cautiously, hoping to deliver them to the other side.
Egypt’s military-backed interim government had vowed for weeksthat it would break up the sit-ins. Government officials and local media had painted Morsi’s supporters in the Muslim Brotherhood as terrorists bent on destroying the nation.
But now, government forces were unleashing sniper fire that seemed indiscriminate. Along with scores of Morsi supporters, those who were felled included two journalists and the teenage daughter of a prominent Brotherhood leader. (A photojournalist friend of mine was shot in the leg.) Snipers also shot at people who tried to approach or leave a makeshift hospital inside the camp, where dozens of dead lined the floor.
By noon, the clashes that were pinning us down began to abate, the police having pushed demonstrators back from their cordon. We edged our way out, past rows of police and a vehicle, to where bloodied men detained by government forces sat on benches, clutching their heads and awaiting their fates.