In a divided Egypt, the dead remain unburied

Inside the al-Imam mosque, the aftermath bore the stench of death.

Relatives fought desperately to stall the decay of dead bodies laid in rows. They sprayed air freshener over corpses and hauled crude blocks of ice into the humid space to place on shrouded chests.

This was where supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi had carried many of their dead after the shocking violence of a day that claimed more than 570 civilian lives.

And this was where more than 150 bodies still lay at midday Thursday, the ice melting into the carpeted mosque floor.

In Islam, immediate burial is considered a sign of respect for the dead, and families typically act as quickly as possible.

But the corpses had become victims again, this time of divisions that only hardened across Egypt after Wednesday’s government raid on two sprawling protest camps. Egyptian authorities said the killings came as a matter of national security; Morsi supporters called them horrific crimes.

And grieving relatives said hospital morgues were refusing to accept bodies that were rapidly decomposing in the Cairo heat. They said police and other officials had added obstacles to an already confusing maze of bureaucratic paperwork that requires government inspectors to sign a pre-burial certificate specifying the cause of death. Some cited claims that authorities wanted the documents falsified to omit mention of gunshot wounds.

“My love,’’ Dawlat Said Marzouk said, her eyes creased and wet beneath her black veil as she sat beside the body of her teenage son. She stroked his head, his charred face covered by a white funeral shroud.

If they shot him dead, she wondered, why did they have to burn him, too?

Such numbness suffused Cairo on Thursday as Morsi supporters struggled to come to terms with the deadliest day in the more than 30 months of political struggle that have racked the country since the toppling of President Hosni Mubarak.

(The government held a military funeral with flag-draped coffins for some of the more than 40 police officers slain in Wednesday’s violence. Late Thursday, shortly before midnight, security forces raided the Imam mosque, and state television reported that authorities were removing the victims’ bodies.)

Khaled al-Tantawy, a Muslim Brotherhood official, said that in fact many victims’ bodies had been burned — “to hide the crime,’’ he said. He and other Morsi supporters speculated that some had been burned alive as police set fire Wednesday night to an improvised hospital at the site of the main sit-in.

But to many, the truth seemed as hazy and overwhelming as their grief. “He loved electronics. He wanted to be an engineer,” Marzouk said, methodically stroking her son’s face as water pooled around his corpse on the floor.

By late in the day, the area outside the al-Imam mosque had become a macabre museum of the previous day’s horrors. Men paced in the sun, clutching bloodied clothes and rags. One man stood silently, holding a partially burned Koran for all to see. A list of names covered the backs of Morsi posters that had been strung across the mosque’s metal gate.

Each time a group burst through the doors bearing another body, the crowd shouted, “There is no god but God.” Some sprayed comrades with water to cool them from the sun — just as they had for weeks in the protest camps, where thousands had gathered to call for Morsi’s return.

But those overrun camps had become wastelands of rubble by Thursday morning, occupied by police. Many of those who fled said there was no new plan for Morsi’s supporters, no clear path forward after the government assault and the ugly fury that erupted across the country in the hours that followed.

Many of the Brotherhood’s top officials, including Morsi’s inner circle and the former president himself, have been held virtually incommunicado since the July 3 coup that ousted them. In the wake of the raid, other Islamist leaders appeared to disappear into hiding.

Egyptian prosecutors say they have issued arrest warrants for several on charges of incitement to violence and murder. Tantawy said he had no idea what had become of his boss, Mohamed El-Beltagi — one of the accused.

“I think we have to continue against the coup in a peaceful way,” Tantawy said uncertainly Thursday. “Maybe standing in other places.

“For now, our focus is to give the martyrs their proper end,” he said. “Then we’ll start from tomorrow.”

But others said increasingly violent confrontations between Morsi supporters and their civilian opponents suggested that the Islamist group’s politicians, who have long preached nonviolence, had lost their control over the people.

“You cannot guarantee how the people will respond to this,” said Sanaa Ali Mohamed, whose brother had been shot through the heart Wednesday as he gathered with others in the Rabaa al-Adawiya field hospital, deep inside the sit-in.

“He called us 15 minutes before he died,” Mohamed said. “At the end, he told us, ‘We are under siege.’ ”

Near the city’s main morgue in the crumbling Cairo neighborhood of Sayeda Zeinab, more bodies filled the muddy streets as families waited for pre-burial paperwork.

Most of those corpses lay on simple wooden boards or scraps of plastic; the melting ice blocks on their chests sent streams of blood-tinged mud running downhill along the pavement.

Cars, ambulances and hearses jostled on a nearby side street, and fights broke out among the relatives shoving for space among the bodies.

“No one is more dead than the others!” a man carrying a corpse shouted as two groups began to shove each other, vying for a place in an unmoving line that wound toward the mosque’s locked door. “Watch his head!’’ a bystander yelled as a stretcher rocked unsteadily amid the mayhem.

“Only God knows’’ what comes next in the country’s grisly course, said Mohamed, the grieving sister and Morsi supporter. “But we’re not going to change our minds.”

Sharaf al-Hourani contributed to this report.

Abigail Hauslohner has been The Post’s Cairo bureau chief since 2012. She served previously as a Middle East correspondent for Time magazine and has been covering the Middle East since 2007.
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