We reached the Rabea al-Adaweya sit-in at 7 am on Wednesday, about an hour after the police and Armed Forces launched their coordinated attack to disperse the six-week long demonstration.
South of Nasr Street, tens of Muslim Brotherhood protesters gathered in front of a military cordon closing off the sit-in. As the daunting bangs of machine guns intermittently dispersed them, the protesters struggled to regroup several times, chanting, “We will bring Sisi down,” referring to military chief commander Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Military choppers were hovering over their heads. “We will bring you down,” they responded defiantly.
Some onlookers were standing at the surrounding buildings, terrified by the unfolding deaths. Others smiled at the thought that the sit-in, which paralyzed their everyday lives for over a month, was coming to the end. And still others went so far as to cheer for the masked Special Forces affiliated to the police as they left combat to rest away from the frontlines.
“What are you laughing at,” an angry protester screamed at a man watching the scene from behind a building gate, in what would evolve into one of several altercations. What was initially the periphery of the bloody clashes was quickly turning violent itself.
The soundscape of the clashes was no less terrorizing. While echoing bangs of birdshot and tear gas bombs are all too familiar in Egypt’s revolutionary times, this intensity of live fire was arguably unprecedented.
As the surrounding streets turned into miniscule warzones, we arrived at one area where there was a relatively safe movement into and out of the sit-in. We were parallel to Tayaran Street, one of the closest entry points to the sit-in’s main field hospital, a street through which the injured were carried to a make-shift hospital in the basement of a building.
Though this seemed to be the only site through which you could reach the sit-in without security intervention, Ahmad Zaatar, a protester from Beheira, insisted that the police lied about leaving a safe exit for the protesters, since their armored vehicles were stationed everywhere. While a couple of streets seemed to be clear of security, police would round protesters up further away from the sit-in, he claimed.
But we counted on the relative safety of this street leading to the sit-in, and stood there talking to Brotherhood members resting from six hours of non-stop clashes with the police.
Sitting on the ground and burying his head in between his legs, Ramy Ahmed, a schoolteacher from Monufiya, showed signs of grief and defeat. He had been in the security team when the attack started a few minutes before 6 am.
Ahmed and his fellows had been expecting the imminent dispersal every day since the Cabinet mandated the Ministry of Interior to disperse the protests “by any means necessary” on July 31 in order to “fight terrorism.”
Ahmed said that every day, he would reach the threshold of fear around dawn prayers. But once that time passed, he knew an attack wouldn’t happen. “We just felt that if anything would happen, it would be around dawn prayers,” he explained.
That’s why the post-dawn attack caught him off guard.
When the sit-in was showered with tear gas and live fire — both at the same time, contrary to MOI’s promises to use gradual dispersal tactics — Ahmed said he and others rushed to reinforce the sit-in’s barricades with cars and metal fences.
“But they came in and bulldozed everything, set tents on fire,” he said.
Ahmed said he was taking a break before going back into the fight. His wife had just called from Monufiya, asking him to stay strong. “The solution for us is to remain peaceful. Every minute we remain here is a victory.”
Asked whether death was a concern for him, he didn’t take long to respond, and fate was his answer. “I can step out of the sit-in now and be hit by a car and die,” he said.
As he spoke, rapid gunfire suddenly returned to the area. We spotted movement on an adjacent rooftop, where the shots were clearly coming from, but couldn’t confirm whether it was protesters or police.
“Somoud, ” (persistence), is the word Omar Fahmy used inside the field hospital, which we managed to enter despite the intensive gunfire around its entrance. The hospital was situated alongside the stage that that kept the sit-in cohesive for days through enthusiastic addresses by Brotherhood leaders.
Fahmy, son of former Shura Council head Ahmed Fahmy, was treating people injured by live ammunition. He insisted, despite the horrors of the day, that the group was strong and persistent: “We have no other options.”
The hospital was mostly catering to live ammunition injuries. Those hit by birdshot had to either live without treatment or get preliminary help in tents set up just outside the hospital. From the alternative entrance to the hospital, which overlooked what remained of the sit-in, we saw an ever-shrinking gathering of people.
In the hospital basement, the medical center supervisor Ahmed Kamel held a stack of about 35 ID cards taken from the 35 dead bodies at the hospital at that point. He was responding to endless queries from people asking if their missing relatives were among the deceased. Around him, relatives of the victims gathered, waiting for him to open the fridges storing the bodies to say a final good bye.
Kamel finally opened one of them, revealing 10 bodies lying one next to the other, wounds in their heads, necks and chests. As one weeping mother recognized her son, she bent over him and started washing his face with water. As her white veil approached his shirt, his blood slowly diffused into it, staining it all over.
There wasn’t much more to report.
We went back up to the upper floor to find an exit out of the hospital, walking through omnipresent bloodstains. The gunfire outside had intensified, and doctors barred anyone from coming in or going out. We realized that we could be trapped in the hospital for a long time if we didn’t risk leaving, so we asked the doctors to let us go.
This could be one of those moments where everything could suddenly end, we thought as we set out to leave. But our fear was greater than anything else. We held hands and ran for our lives through a storm of gunfire. We left behind dozens trapped in the hospital, which only an hour later would be attacked by police and set on fire.