Friday, Aug. 16, 2013 | midnight
CAIRO — Gathering Thursday morning around a mosque used as a morgue for hundreds killed the day before, many Islamists waited confidently for a surge of sympathetic support from the broader public. But it failed to materialize.
With their leaders jailed or silent, Islamists reeled in shock at the worst mass killing in Egypt’s modern history. By Thursday night, health officials had counted 638 dead and nearly 4,000 injured, but the final toll was expected to rise further.
A tense quiet settled over Cairo as the city braced for new protests by the supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi after Friday prayers. The new government authorized the police to respond with lethal force if they felt endangered.
Many of those waiting outside the makeshift morgue talked of civil war. Some blamed members of Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority for supporting the military takeover. A few argued openly for a turn to violence.
“The solution might be an assassination list,” said Ahmed, 27, who like others refused to use his full name for fear of reprisals from the new authorities. “Shoot anyone in uniform. It doesn’t matter if the good is taken with the bad, because that is what happened to us last night.”
Mohamed Rasmy, a 30-year-old engineer, interrupted. “That is not the solution,” he said, insisting that Islamist leaders would re-emerge with a plan “to come together in protest.” Despite the apparently wide support for the police action by the private news media and much of Cairo, he argued that the bloodshed was now turning the rest of the public against the military-appointed government.
“It is already happening,” he said.
The outcome of the internal Islamist debate may now be the most critical variable in deciding the next phase of the crisis. The military-backed government has made clear its determination to demonize and repress the Islamists with a ruthlessness exceeding even that of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the autocrat who first outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood six decades ago.
How the Islamists respond will inevitably reshape both their movement and Egypt. Will they resume the accommodationist tactics of the Muslim Brotherhood under former President Hosni Mubarak, escalate their street protests despite continued casualties, or turn to armed insurgency as some did in the 1990s?
President Barack Obama, interrupting a weeklong vacation to address the bloodshed, stopped short of suspending the $1.3 billion in annual U.S. military aid to Egypt but canceled joint military exercises scheduled to take place in a few months.
Instead of “reconciliation” after the military takeover, “we’ve seen a more dangerous path taken through arbitrary arrests, a broad crackdown on Mr. Morsi’s associations and supporters, and now tragically the violence that’s taken the lives of hundreds of people and wounded thousands more,” Obama said, adding that “our traditional cooperation cannot continue as usual when civilians are being killed in the streets and rights are being rolled back.”
Soon after his speech, the State Department issued an advisory warning U.S. citizens living in Egypt to leave “because of the continuing political and social unrest.”
The military-appointed government in Cairo accused Obama of failing to grasp the nature of the “terrorist acts” Egypt is facing.
A statement issued by the office of interim President Adly Mansour said Obama’s remarks “would strengthen the violent armed groups and encourage them in their methods inimical to stability and the democratic transition.”
In Europe, some officials called for a suspension of aid by the European Union, and at least one member state, Denmark, cut off support. The British and French summoned their Egyptian ambassadors to condemn the violence. In Ankara, Turkey, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, an ideological ally of Morsi’s, called for an early meeting of the U.N. Security Council to discuss what he called a “massacre.”
Egyptian Islamists continued to lash out across the country. Scores of them blocked a main highway circling the capital. In Alexandria, hundreds battled with opponents and the police in the streets, and health officials said at least nine died. Others hurled firebombs that ignited a provincial government headquarters near the pyramids in Giza. In the latest in a string of attacks on Coptic Christian churches and businesses, at least one more church was set fire, in Fayoum.
Outside the mosque in Cairo, some Islamists contended that the Coptic pope, Tawadros II, had appeared to endorse the crackdown, and they portrayed attacks on churches around the country as a counterattack.
“When Pope Tawadros comes out after a massacre to thank the military and the police, then don’t accuse me of sectarianism,” said Mamdouh Hamdi, 35, an accountant.
The Islamist movement, usually known here for its tight discipline, appeared to slip loose from its leaders, entering perilous new ground, said Ali Farghaly, 47, an executive at a multinational company who was waiting outside the mosque. “Forget the leaders now,” he said. “The streets are leading this, and when things get out of the control of the leaders, no one can predict the situation.”
But if the Islamists hoped that Wednesday’s violence would turn the rest of the country against the military-dominated government, there were few signs of it Thursday. Mohamed ElBaradei, the interim vice president and a Nobel Prize-winner, was the only official to resign over the crackdown, and he was widely criticized for it in both the state and the private media.
The ultraconservative Nour Party, the liberal April 6 group and the far-left Revolutionary Socialists spoke out against the killings. But most other political factions denounced the Islamists as a terrorist threat and applauded the government action.
With the main Islamist satellite networks shut down by the new government, Egyptian state and private television coverage focused on unsubstantiated allegations that the Islamist sit-ins had posed a terrorist threat, or that their participants shot first at the police. Unlike newspapers around the world, none of the major Egyptian dailies put a picture of the carnage on their front pages Thursday.
Veterans of Gamaa Islamiya, the ultraconservative Islamist group that waged a terrorism campaign in Egypt two decades ago and later renounced violence, said that since the military takeover they had been warning angry jihadis to shun their group’s former tactics.
“Because of our experience and the position that we have against the use of violence, we persuaded them that Egypt can’t stand fighting, that an armed conflict is a loss to everybody,” said Ammar Omar Abdel Rahman, a leader of Gamaa Islamiya and the son of the blind sheik convicted of a terrorism in the United States 20 year ago.
But Wednesday’s crackdown had made that argument much harder to win, Rahman said. The security forces “are the aggressors,” he said. “Being a military doesn’t give you the right to kill and exterminate whoever you want.”
By late morning, patches of blackened ground were still smoldering on the grounds where tens of thousands had camped for the six weeks since Morsi’s ouster. More than 240 bodies lay in neat rows in the mosque-turned-morgue, wrapped in white sheets as teams moved coffins in and out to remove the dead for burial.
Many were charred beyond recognition by the fires that Egyptian security forces set to eradicate the tent city. Some had blocks of ice on their chest to slow decomposition in the intense midday heat and volunteers moved through the room spraying antiseptic. Behind a display of recovered identification cards used to aid identification, a young boy slept amid the dead.
Hundreds had gathered outside to try to find missing friends of relatives, or to stand in solidarity with the lost. A voice over a loudspeaker repeatedly urged the crowd to disperse, to march off with the departing coffins. A sign on the door pointedly declared that the assembly was not a sit-in or a demonstration but just a place to claim the dead, presumably to avoid attracting another police crackdown.
After the 9 p.m. curfew, the police moved in, firing tear gas into the mosque, seizing control and removing the remaining bodies, television news coverage showed. It was not clear where the bodies were taken, or why.