Death toll reaches 53 in day of violence in Egypt as police turn on Brotherhood protesters

A day set aside to celebrate the Egyptian military turned into scenes of bloody violence Sunday as Egyptian security forces opened fire on demonstrators sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood in a sign of how the once powerful group has become the target of official repression.

The Health Ministry announced that at least 53 people were dead, but the toll had changed throughout the night and was expected to go higher. At least 32 of the deaths took place in Cairo and the adjoining city of Giza, where 246 people were injured. Deaths were also announced in the cities of Beni Suef and Minya. The ministry did not say where eight of the deaths had occurred.

The Ministry of the Interior, which oversees the police and security forces, said that 423 people had been arrested in Cairo and Giza and it blamed the violence on Brotherhood supporters attempting to crash pro-military rallies called to mark the 40th anniversary of the start of Egypt’s last war with Israel. The military-backed government had warned in a statement from Ahmed El-Mosalamani, the presidential spokesman, that anyone protesting against the military on Sunday would be considered an “agent” conspiring against the state.

But it was an open question whether the Brotherhood demonstrators had done anything to provoke the attacks. Earlier on Sunday, two McClatchy reporters witnessed police openly beating Brotherhood demonstrators, without provocation, not far from the main pro-military rally in Tahrir Square in central Cairo.

The two reporters, who had left the pro-military demonstration to cover the Brotherhood protest, were pounced on by security officers, who struck one on the neck with a night stick, stole both reporters’ cell phones and camera, and threatened to haul one away.

The abuse ended only after the reporters proved they’d been at the pro-military rally by producing a poster of Defense Minister Gen. Abdel-Fattah El-Sissi, the military head who engineered the ouster of President Mohammed Morsi in July.

There was no sign of Brotherhood provocation. The beatings took place well away from the crowds that were celebrating the military, and McClatchy reporters witnessed police officers throwing rocks at the protesters. Some protesters jumped into the Nile River to take refuge.

Residents nearby also played a role, refusing to give Brotherhood sympathizers shelter as they sought to flee the security forces’ onslaught.

When police spotted the reporters watching what was taking place, a police officer struck a male McClatchy reporter in the back of his neck and stole his phone from his pocket. He then stole the phone and camera of a second correspondent.

“Screw your mother,” the officer told the reporters.

The beatings apparently had the approval of higher ups. Near Tahrir Square, two officers appeared with broken night sticks. Their commander asked what happened.

“We beat Brotherhood,” the officers responded.

The gunfire took place elsewhere, apparently as Brotherhood protesters assembled to march toward Tahrir Square from Cairo’s Garden City district and Giza’s Dokki district.

Police reportedly fired tear gas to disperse the marchers, then opened up with live ammunition. An Associated Press photographer reported that he had seen at least nine bodies on the floor of a clinic in Dokki. All had been shot in the head.

The deaths recalled several other Brotherhood demonstrations where protesters were killed, overwhelmingly by gunshots to the head and chest. In the most notorious incident, security forces stormed a sit-in that had been set up to protest Morsi’s ouster. More than 1,000 people may have died in that attack.

The deaths of Brotherhood supporters stood in sharp contrast to the scene inside Tahrir Square, where tens of thousands gathered to celebrate the anniversary of the 1973 war, which ended in Egyptian defeat but that is hailed here for having led to Israel’s agreement to return the Sinai Peninsula to Egyptian control.

At least a dozen tanks and armored vehicles were deployed at the entrances to the square, the iconic plaza where pro-democracy demonstrations nearly three years ago drove Hosni Mubarak from the presidency.

Smiling and laughing, thousands passed through checkpoints with metal detectors to demonstrate their support for the military, whose toppling of Morsi ended the administration of Egypt’s first democratically elected president. If the crowd found the location ironic, that realization didn’t dampen their enthusiasm, as the ululating trills of women and the boisterous cheers of men celebrated the return of military rule.

Everywhere inside the square the atmosphere was nationalistic. Egyptian flags and kites bearing the Egyptian colors flew overhead. People cheered, whistled and passed out cookies and candy. Posters of El-Sissi were everywhere.

Military helicopters flew overhead and a military band kept the crowds entertained. Meanwhile, dozens of people passed petitions urging el-Sissi to run for president. “Finish your favor,” the petition read, a reference to the millions of people who flooded Cairo’s streets in June urging Morsi’s removal from office.

There were more signs that the military was continuing its efforts to erase whatever changes had taken place during the year-long Morsi reign. Retired Field Marshall Mohammed Tantawi, who Morsi fired as head of the army in the first weeks of his administration, appeared in public Sunday night for the first time since his dismissal at a ceremony in a military-owned stadium marking the war anniversary. El Sissi and the transitional president el-Sissi named to replace Morsi, Adly Mansour, were also present.