There was a crackle of gunfire. Birdshot hit the buildings overhead and the crowd of demonstrators on Cairo’s 15 May Bridge took off running from the shots. I felt a dull object hit my back. It was a brake disk from a car. Thrown by whom—it was unclear. Demonstrators shouted that police were shooting from the rooftops. I kept running.
The thousands of demonstrators that filled the bridge were supporters of deposed President Mohamed Morsi, heeding a call for a Friday of Rage, a day of nationwide demonstrations deploring a crackdown by the interim military-backed government that at least 638 people dead on Wednesday. The initial shock of Wednesday’s killing has now worn off, and given way to bitterness and anger.
Many of the protesters knew they could be marching to their deaths. “I saw two people who were shot already, and I’m not afraid,” said Haitham Eisa, 32, a quality manager at an educational company based in Germany. He’s lived in Germany for 11 years, he said, but he flew back for the January 2011 uprising that toppled dictator Hosni Mubarak. He flew back again this week to protest Wednesday’s massacre.
“I’m going because I have to protect my opinion. My opinion is democracy,” he said, jogging alongside me. “We are still fighting for democracy. Democracy should survive. Nothing else. Not military weapons.” Running past, an engineering student name Muhammad Ibrahim Younis, 21, overheard Eisa’s words and shouted, “We’re not going back even if it means death!”
The scene on the bridge was just the beginning of another day of brawling and bloodshed between the military-backed government and backers of Morsi, who include many Islamists. The marchers were heading for Cairo’s Ramses Square, the site of the capital’s main railroad terminal. Fighting between police and protesters in that square and across the country left at least 60 dead, with similar scenes in the cities of Alexandria, Ismailiya and elsewhere. As night fell, the streets of downtown Cairo emptied as a government-imposed curfew went into effect. The mood was grim. Egyptian television showed images of a high-rise building in flames. The sound of buzzing military helicopters and occasional gunshots nearly drowned out the evening call to prayer as the sun set over the Nile.
The day began with tan army tanks blocking the entrances to Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the 2011 revolution that ousted Mubarak as well as the site of mass protests against Morsi’s government earlier this year. The Egyptian military removed Morsi, the elected Muslim Brotherhood-backed president, from power on July 3 and has held him incommunicado since.
Now, with the death toll soaring from a series of bloody crackdowns by the security forces, positions on all sides of the fight have hardened. After Friday’s violence, the Muslim Brotherhood announced a call for more demonstrations, every single day. Meanwhile, state television aired footage of what they said were men firing AK-47s from the demonstration on the 15 May Bridge. Cairo residents organized squads of citizen vigilantes, known as “popular committees” to patrol the borders of each neighborhoods. In pro-military neighborhoods, the patrols were determined to keep pro-Morsi demonstrators out.
And I ran straight into them when I attempted to leave the bridge in order to avoid the chaos in Ramses Square. Photojournalist Cliff Cheney and I descended an off-ramp from the bridge toward the working class neighborhood of Bulaq, looking for a way out of the fight. A group of men, a few wielding sticks, stopped us. No one was allowed through, they said.
Haitham Eisa, the manager living in Germany, reappeared and explained to the men that we were journalists who simply wanted to leave the scene. At first, this strategy appeared to work. We moved through the first layer of men.
But others in the group were apparently not convinced that Cliff and I did not represent a threat. A man grabbed me by the arm, then a whole group seized me. Within seconds I was lifted off the ground while a whole crowd of men ripped my camera from my hands and my medical kit from the strap on my thigh. One man slapped me across the face, knocking my glasses to the pavement.
Somehow, cooler heads prevailed. More men joined the group, pulling me out of the crowd and returning my glasses and medical kit. Cliff had managed to secure the camera but two of his own had been stolen.
We hustled down the road, away from the crowd and jumped in a taxi. The driver rolled down the road but stopped after only a few meters. “Don’t worry. I’ve got a pistol in the car,” he said, turning to me and rapping the compartment in between the front seats. Then he stopped the car and walked away.
Not wanting to wait for the driver, Cliff and I exited the car. Two men appeared on a scooter, returning one of Cliff’s cameras.
Yet another group of men hustled us to the side of the road and inside the air-conditioned office of a car repair shop. The manager, a friendly man named Said Muhammad, brought us tea. He said he would drive us home, but that we must wait, owing to the security situation. “We’re your brothers,” he said. “We should take a picture together.”
Over two hours several more men from the neighborhood rotated through the office. One asked me pointedly whether I thought Morsi’s removal had amounted to a coup. Not wanting to upset my hosts, I asked him what he thought. “The Brotherhood are terrorists,” he said. He, like all the local men we interacted with, supported the military. One claimed he was in contact with the army about our presence in the neighborhood.
We began to grow anxious. I repeatedly explained, in Arabic, that we simply wanted to leave and go home or to the government press office. No, the men told us, we must stay for our own safety. Even if we had tried to make a break and leave, since we were obviously not from the area, we would need the local men’s assistance to pass through the citizen checkpoints.
Eventually, a friend called and negotiated in Cairo-accented Arabic with our hosts. They agreed to drive us to the Nile Corniche, but our negotiator explained she was concerned they might deliver us to a nearby police station.
A car was summoned and we boarded, rolling through a checkpoint guarded by teenagers wielding a machete and sticks. The driver asked: should we go to the police station or the corniche? I implored him to go to the corniche and, after navigating another checkpoint, we were eventually free to go.
With demonstrations ongoing on the bridges over the Nile and few cars in sight, getting back over the river from whence we came seemed impossible. The military and security forces were in control of a few public spaces, like Tahrir, but the residential neighborhoods belonged to the citizen committees. There were reports of sustained post-curfew violence between security forces and the remaining pro-Morsi supporters in Ramses Square and a mosque there that has become a temporary field hospital for the dead and wounded.
The presence of the vigilante groups was a throwback to similar “popular committees” set up to protect neighborhoods during the 18 days of the 2011 revolution. The deadly violence of the security forces, too, was reminiscent of the government crackdown during that uprising. History, in its most frightening form, was repeating itself.