Egypt on the Brink: Dozens of Morsi Supporters Killed in Cairo as Crisis Deepens

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People run for cover as security forces fire tear gas after shooting to disperse Islamist supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi outside the Republican Guard headquarters in Cairo, on July 8, 2013.

Egypt’s splintering national unity was further fractured in the early hours of July 8 by a chaotic burst of dawn violence that left 51 civilians dead—all of them reportedly supporters of deposed President Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood. One security officer died in the violence, which took place outside the headquarters of the Republican Guard—where Morsi supporters have held a sit-in for several days in the belief that he is detained inside.

Confusion surrounded the massacre’s grisly aftermath, with both sides offering wildly conflicting versions of events. The army, in an official statement published by state-owned daily Al-Ahram’s website, said an “armed terrorist group” attempted to break into the Republican Guard headquarters in the early hours of Monday and “attacked security forces.” A military spokesman later asserted that the Brotherhood had gunmen firing from nearby rooftops. He warned that “interfering with Egypt’s national security will not be allowed.”

However the Brotherhood has presented reams of evidence—spent shell casings and hundreds of gunshot wounds—along with personal testimonies claiming their people were ambushed by soldiers, who fired live ammunition indiscriminately. The soldiers “started firing live rounds during the dawn prayers,” Brotherhood spokesman Gehad El-Haddad told Al Jazeera English. “After that it was a blood-bath, a massacre.”

(PHOTOSCairo Massacre: Dozens of Pro-Morsi Supporters Killed in Clashes with Egypt’s Military)

Whatever the violence’s origins, the incident could have a catastrophic effect on Egypt’s bruised and fractious political atmosphere. Interim President Adly Mansour, four days into his administration, ordered an independent judicial inquiry into the events and repeated his call for national reconciliation talks—talks, he says, would include the Brotherhood if the Islamist group was willing to attend. But the prospect of that sort of reconciliation and reintroduction of the Brotherhood into Egypt’s political fold seemed dimmer than ever on Monday.

“This is going to be endless,” Amr Darrag, a senior Brotherhood official who resigned his cabinet post last week after Morsi’s ouster, told TIME. “We’re not even at square one, we’re moving back to where we were before the 2011 revolution.”

Perhaps even more worrisome than the Brotherhood’s reaction will be the effect this could have inside the ranks of the fledgling transitional post-Morsi coalition. The Salafist Nour Party announced its withdrawal from the coalition early Monday morning, but later softened its language to a mere “suspension” of its participation. And former senior Brotherhood official Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh became the first to call for President Mansour to resign over the incident.

Aboul Fotouh—a centrist who finished fourth in the first round of presidential elections last year—had supported the protests seeking Morsi’s early exit. But he had strongly opposed any sort of military intervention and conspicuously didn’t join the diverse array of political and social luminaries backing the military’s move.

The Nour Party, however, are active lynchpins of the new coalition; their presence among those publicly endorsing the military’s ouster of Morsi is a necessary element to counter Brotherhood claims that the entire affair is a thinly veiled war on political Islam. Their continued participation is so important that they were largely credited with single-handedly blocking the nomination of Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel laureate and liberal politico, as prime minister.

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As Mansour and the military work to rally support and move through the transitional traumas, an increasingly hysterical nation will look to both sides to find a way back from this brink. There doesn’t seem to be much room to operate. For the new government and their hundreds of thousands of cheering supporters, the end of the Morsi presidency is a historical fact now. And for the Brotherhood—which has brought its own considerable support to the street—nothing less than his full reinstatement will bring them off the streets.

“It’s not even Morsi and it’s not the Brotherhood. It’s the act of aggression against legitimacy and the diversion of the democratic path. Once you lower your standards on that, everything is lost,” Darrag said. However, Darrag did seem to offer a potential olive branch, hinting that, should Morsi be released, he wouldn’t necessarily have to remain president for his full remaining tenure. “The president should come back, but after that anything can be decided,” he said. “The reconciliation talks could lead to all kinds of solutions.” But this glimmer of rapprochement remains for now obscured by Cairo’s latest scenes of death and bloodshed.

Khalil is a Cairo-based journalist and author of Liberation Square: Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation.

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