What’s Next for Egypt

As bloody tensions mount in Cairo, protesters are hoping international outrage will bolster their cause — but security forces are losing patience

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Manu Brabo / AP

A wounded supporter of the ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi sits on the floor of a field hospital in Nasr City, a district in Cairo, on July 27, 2013

To a large extent, the writing was on the wall for the Muslim Brotherhood’s sit-in protest from the moment earlier this week when Defense Minister Abdel Fatah al-Sissi called for mass public rallies to support the military’s ouster of President Mohamed Morsi — and to provide a public mandate to “authorize the armed forces to confront violence and terrorism.”

Those rallies on July 26 were robust and raucous, as expected, packing downtown Cairo’s Tahrir Square and the area around the presidential palace — about a 15-minute walk from the Nasr City district, where thousands of supporters from Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood have gathered for nearly a month, demanding the reversal of what they call a blatant coup against Egypt’s first democratically elected civilian President.

Al-Sissi had received his authorization. And within a matter of hours, the blood of Morsi supporters was flowing through the streets of Nasr City, and the Brotherhood field hospital was overflowing with the dead and dying. A set of chaotic predawn July 27 clashes with police left at least 60 Morsi supporters dead. (The actual death count is still somewhat in dispute: the Health Ministry confirms 65 deaths and the Brotherhood claims the true number is nearly twice as high.)

(PHOTOS: Scores Killed in Latest Cairo Protests)

According to both Brotherhood and official sources, the violence began around 2 a.m. on Saturday, when the Brotherhood members attempted to expand the size of their sit-in area. The Brotherhood claims this was a natural move to accommodate the thousands of fresh supporters flocking to their cause, while the government claims the protesters were moving to block traffic on a major nearby bridge. Interior Ministry spokesman Hani Abdel-Latif said the violence started with clashes between the Brotherhood supporters and neighborhood residents who have come to resent their presence.

“The police moved to stop the clashes between the two groups and opened the road again,” he said.

Many of the deaths seem to have taken place on a stretch of asphalt directly in front of the viewing stand where late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was killed by an Islamist cell inside his own military during a parade on October 6, 1981. Sadat is buried in a massive shrine across the street from the viewing stand.

The aftermath of the killings has been complicated by a set of statements and denials from the government that border on surreal. According to multiple eyewitness accounts, the bulk of the casualties came from gunshot wounds — possibly from snipers. “Most were killed by bullet wounds — especially right here,” one volunteer doctor at the Brotherhood field hospital told reporters, pointing to the center of his forehead.

(MORE: Egyptian Court Accuses Morsi of Espionage and Paves the Way for Further Trouble)

But Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim, in a Saturday press conference, flatly claimed that his forces had used nothing more dangerous than tear gas. The police “have never fired at a protester using live ammunition,” said Ibrahim, adding that the Brotherhood was exploiting the issue in order to “purposefully fabricate a crisis.”

By Saturday afternoon the area around the Rabaa Adaweya mosque had been fortified to an extent that recalled the heights of the 2011 revolution in Tahrir Square. Brotherhood volunteers worked to pull up hexagonal paving stones from a nearby sidewalk and assemble them in a series of staggered barriers that extended more than a half-mile from the heart of their protest site. The men chanted prayers as they worked while other volunteers dutifully sprayed them with water to combat the July heat and prevent dehydration while everyone was forgoing food and liquid until sunset.

Now begins a toxic and inherently unstable waiting game.

The security forces are hoping that the Brotherhood cadres will eventually be demoralized by the stalemate, the punishing summer heat in the middle of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, and the fact that the majority of the country’s population genuinely seem to have turned against them. They hope to convince Morsi supporters to return home, tend their physical and political wounds and eventually join the post-Morsi future. However, maneuvers like al-Sissi’s call for public support to legitimize a crackdown indicate that the military and police are losing patience, as the Brotherhood sit-in shows few signs of losing momentum.

(MORE: Egypt’s Crisis: Ramadan Cools Tensions in Cairo, for Now)

“God willing, it will be broken up in a way that does not cause losses,” said Ibrahim, the Minister of Interior. “But … it must end. We hope that they come to their senses … and join their political process.”

Meanwhile, the Brotherhood supporters are hoping that international attention and outrage will save them, and that the rising death toll will draw undecided or conflicted Egyptians to their side and split the transitional government’s fragile coalition from within. Brotherhood spokesman Ahmed Aref openly laughed off the Interior Minister’s claim that no live ammunition had been used as a classic example of the sort of government tactics that will draw thousands more to their cause.

“Every time they speak they scandalize themselves,” he said. “We don’t have to do anything.”

Now the venerable Islamist organization is essentially daring the police and military to come root them out by force — a process that simply can’t happen without a massive bloodletting on live television.

“We’re not giving in. Go ahead and shoot us — 10,000, 20,000, we’re ready for that,” said Wafaa al-Hefny, a protester and professor of English literature. “The only way they can get the legitimacy they need is if we give up. Well, we’re not budging. They’ll just have to kill us — and that won’t bring them legitimacy.”

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