The fear of massive bloodshed that had been looming since nationwide anti-Morsi demonstrations on 30 June became reality at dawn on Monday outside the Republican Guard headquarters in Cairo's Heliopolis district.
According to the army's version of the story, an attempt by members of the Muslim Brotherhood to storm the headquarters where they thought ousted president Mohamed Morsi was being held hostage, developed into clashes that killed 51 – some immediately and others later due to grave wounds.
Officials said four of the dead were police and army officers. The identity of nine is still to be announced and the rest were members of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Speaking quietly while lying on a stretcher in a field hospital at the nearby Rabia Al-Adawiya Mosque, the venue of a another pro-Morsi sit-in, Brotherhood member Amr Mahrous spoke of “devastating shooting with live ammunition by police and army officers at protesters during dawn prayers.”
But Amr Taha, a local resident, had a different version:
“I had already performed my dawn prayers at a nearby mosque and it took me a while to leave the mosque and walk towards my home. I was just about to take the elevator up to my apartment when I heard noises. I went outside and saw protesters trying to force their way into the Republican Guard building, and that must have been around 4am.”
Taha watched for a few more minutes and saw protesters throwing stones and metal objects at soldiers who warned the demonstrators to “keep away.”
“Things seemed to be getting out of hand and I had to leave for fear of being hurt – that must have been around 4:15 or so - and for sure that was long after the prayers were over,” Taha added.
Speaking anonymously, some of the officers on duty at the time offered similar accounts to Taha and other local residents who spoke at length to Ahram Online.
“We kept warning [the protesters] to keep away. We used megaphones to tell them to move back or else they would be attacked. We ordered soldiers to use batons to stop them from attacking the building but it didn't work and some of them were actually trying to jump into the building and they were urging each other to liberate Morsi,” an officer said.
Officers said they could not have allowed anyone to break into a military installment. “Out of the question,” said another officer. He added that for as long as the sit-in was peaceful there was no problem.
He added, “We actually spoke with the protesters and tried to explain that they had to go back to the Rabia Al-Adawiya sit-in to allow the traffic to pass more smoothly. None of them were touched and none of them would have been had it not been for their attempt to break into the building after they'd been incited to do so by their leaders who kept saying ‘Morsi is inside, we need to get him out’."
The Monday edition of the Muslim Brotherhood's newspaper, Freedom and Justice, carried news of Brotherhood member Salah Sultan telling protesters that Morsi was inside the Republic Guard building awaiting rescue.
The officers insisted Morsi was not there and the Brotherhood leadership was just “agitating“ their rank and file for political reasons.
Informed political sources told Ahram Online that the Brotherhood leadership's main objective was to negotiate their safe exit from the country and secure immunity from prosecution. “They thought the incitement and carnage would prompt sympathy and thus force a better deal from the army but it backfired and now all talks are on hold pending the end of all sit-ins,” the same source said.
Following the killings, the Strong Egypt Party, led by former Brotherhood figure Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh, issued a statement calling on Brotherhood leaders to stop encouraging protests and to pursue a legal process.
Other political parties, including the Salafist Nour Party which had supported Morsi's ouster, issued statements calling for a fact-finding mission into the killings and for national reconciliation.
Presidential sources said interim president Adly Mansour had given his support for reconciliation efforts with the Brotherhood but they would have to end all attempts to disrupt the transition process. No clear formula has yet been offered for the parties to consider but several Islamist and liberal politicians are working to put together a scheme that could serve this purpose.
This might be a difficult task given the anger on the street and in many political, particularly revolutionary, quarters against the Brotherhood due its actions over the past year.
Hassan Shahine, a member of Tamarod (Rebel) which organised a petition and protests calling for Morsi's removal, told Ahram Online that for any serious reconciliation the Brotherhood youth must part ways with the ideas of the group's leadership that “had failed to serve the national interest and are still trying to create instability through incitement and sit-ins."
Shahine said the Brotherhood youth need a new beginning away from the organisation, and its political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party, should be dissolved along with all other religious parties.
“We learned over the last year that mixing politics with religion is very harmful for the country and its people, including those of the concerned parties who end up being used for the wrong cause under the banner of religion,” Shahine added.
Like other Tamarod and revolutionary figures, Shahine was angered by the Nour Party's veto of Mohamed ElBaradei's appointment as prime minister, or even as vice president. “We need to break the assumed Islamist upper hand over political decision-making,” he said.
Meanwhile, official sources said Monday's killings had already had a political impact. A scheme for an interim period of 12 to 18 months was reduced nine months in the constitutional declaration issued by interim leader Mansour on Monday evening.
The killings also ended the chance that any prominent economist would accept the premiership. Both Hisham Ramez, governor of the central bank, and Ziyad Baheddine, a former chief of the stock exchange, declined the offer. Sources close to both men said neither wanted responsibility for non-economic matters, especially security.
Samir Radwan, who served as finance minister after the January 25 Revolution, was the most prominent name being mentioned for the premiership by Monday evening – despite scepticism by Radwan's close associates that he would accept the job in the present circumstances.