After weeks of street-level standoffs and multiple ultimatums, Egyptian security forces raided a pair of long-term protest sites in Cairo held by the Muslim Brotherhood and supporters of deposed president Mohammed Morsi early Wednesday morning.
The attacks started around 7 a.m. As of noon, the area around the Nahda Square sit-in, outside the gates of Cairo University, were a smoking ruin of burning tires and smoldering tents. But the Nahda Camp was always the smaller and more tenuous of the two Brotherhood sites. Across the city at the Rabaa Adaweya mosque in the Nasr City district a much more prolonged and potentially bloody battle is unfolding.
(PHOTOS: Bloodshed in Cairo as Police Storm Morsi Camps)
There were unconfirmed reports of dozens of fatalities. Photographs that appeared to be taken inside the Rabaa field hospital seemed to show at least 40 dead bodies, and the Brotherhood are already claiming more than 100 people have been killed. Witnesses on the scene report heavy use of live ammunition by the security forces. Journalists attempting to approach the Rabaa sit-in area have been fired upon.
The crackdown has been coming for weeks—realistically ever since July 24 when military chief and Deputy Prime Minister Abdel Fatah al-Sissi called for (and received) mass popular demonstrations to support and “authorize” the police and army to deal with the Brotherhood. Since then the purge of the protest sites has seemingly been delayed by the final week of the holy Muslim fasting month of Ramadan and by a flurry of failed resolution efforts by the U.S., the European Union and others. Late last week, Interim President Adly Mansour said that negotiations had failed and blamed the Brotherhood for their intransigence.
The storming of the sit-in camps could mark the beginning of a new phase of the Egyptian political crisis. By purging the Brotherhood, the interim government might be able to begin organizing a new transitional roadmap—including scheduling fresh parliamentary and presidential elections.
As the siege deepend around the Rabaa sit-in, however, there were already early signs that the conflict was spreading around the city and the country. Clashes erupted in the Mohandessin district—about a 20-minute walk from the Nahda site—where the Brotherhood attempted to take over a prominent mosque and square. The government seems particularly concerned about the Brotherhood’s legendary mobilization machine. As the conflict was still raging Wednesday morning, state media announced that all train service into Cairo was being suspended.
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