Smell of death lingers in Cairo mosque

Hundreds of bodies line floors of makeshift morgue, some of them charred and impossible to identify

Egyptian men work to organize the bodies of supporters of deposed Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, killed during a violent crackdown by Egyptian Security Forces on pro-Morsi sit-in demonstrations the day before, at the al-Iman Mosque in Nasr City on August 15, 2013 in Cairo.
Ed Giles/Getty Images

Cairo, Egypt – One day after Cairo police cleared two sit-ins held in support of deposed President Mohamed Morsi, the capital city was slow to wake.

Hours after the state-of-emergency curfew was lifted, traffic and signs of life began to appear by late morning on Thursday.

But in some neighborhoods, life was not going back to normal after at least 525 people were killed in the clearings in Cairo and ensuing clashes here and across the country.

In Giza, hundreds of Morsi supporters set fire to the local government offices, prompting the government to authorize the use of live ammunition on anyone attacking state buildings.

And in al-Iman mosque in Nasr City, the neighborhood where a massive, 47-day vigil was held at the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque, hundreds of bodies from Wednesday’s violence still lined floors of the makeshift morgue.

Wrapped in shrouds and kept cool with blocks of ice, most of the bodies bore gunshot wounds, but a number were charred, making them hard to identify for family members.

'No weapons'

Samr Badredeen was at al-Iman mosque on Thursday, simply to grieve.

“They killed my husband and then they burned his body. I can’t find him,” she wept.

“He had no weapons on him….If he had a weapon, he would have been able to defend himself,” she said of her husband, Aymen Mohamed Zakayadeen, a 45-year-old electrical engineer and the father of four children, aged 5 to 12.

“In his last phone call at 9 a.m. he told me he was fine….At 3 p.m., his friend called to tell me he was martyred.”

Many of those at the sit-in wrote their names on their hands at the time of the attack so that their bodies could be identified. Their names were listed on cardboard signs at the end of each row, where they lay waiting to be buried.

‘Excellent’ job

Strategic security expert Mokhtar Qandil told Al Jazeera that Wednesday’s operation was “a very important strategy to cut the cancer called the Muslim Brotherhood from Egypt’s body.”

“It was done very legally and very quietly,” said Qandil of the day-long clearing of the sit-ins in Rabaa and Giza.

"The police kept telling them to leave, please leave, you are safe, you are free, but they stayed, why? For Morsi? Morsi failed," Qandil said.

"What can the police do with these people?"

Qandil said the police did an "an excellent job with the least loss of life. They succeeded.”

"It was a good plan for finishing the protests – it was not unusual and it was not illegal."

He echoed remarks by interim Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi, who in an address on Egyptian television defended the clearing as necessary to "restore the security of Egyptians" and praised the Ministry of Interior and police for showing restraint "to the maximum level.”

However, even human rights groups that have accused Morsi’s supporters—largely organized by the Muslim Brotherhood—of inciting violence hold police responsible for what they called a "tragedy.”

"We believe the security apparatus could have avoided this human tragedy if it had complied with international rules and standards for the dispersal of assemblies," read a joint statement signed by nine human rights organizations in Egypt.

The statement also criticized security authorities for failing to secure the areas around the Giza and Rabaa sit-ins earlier, allowing "weapons, ammunition and fortifications to enter the sit-ins and led to killing, torture and physical assaults on journalists with impunity.”

Mohamed Zaree, Egypt program manager for the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, and one of the people who signed the letter, marveled at a statement by the Ministry of Interior which said that a death toll of between 3,000 and 5,000 would be likely, characterizing the number of deaths as "awkward" and likely to have economic blowback rather than being an unacceptable loss of life.

"I don’t think that there is any loss that is acceptable – this has nothing to do with international standards," said Zaree, adding that he would like to know how such a number of acceptable losses was calculated.

‘Reasonable’ to whom?

For Egyptians who felt the sit-ins were either a nuisance, misguided or a threat to national security, the deaths resulting from Wednesday’s operations appeared to be an acceptable price to pay.

Twitter has been buzzing with defendants of Cairo police, many of whom referred to the Muslim Brotherhood as "terrorists" and "murderers.”

As plumes of smoke rose from the surrounded sit-in on Wednesday and gunshots were heard echoing out of Rabaa Square, crowds gathered near the police lines to chant slogans praising Egyptian army chief General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Cairo police.

Local newspapers had reported that an estimated 10 percent loss of life was expected, something security experts previously told  Al Jazeera were "reasonable losses that people will accept to overcome the political crises.”

The notion of what is a reasonable loss is hard to quantify in a place like al-Iman mosque, where the smell of death mixed with the putridly sweet air freshener and family members wailed inconsolably over the charred or bloodied remains of those they have lost.

Marwan Saber, a cardiologist, got separated from his brother, Omar, in the melee following the crackdown.

Saber ended up outside the sit-in whereas Omar, a 22-year-old engineer, was shot in the chest inside the protest camp.

"He was stuck in an ambulance….Police wouldn’t let the ambulance leave Rabaa," said Saber, 26, who was frantic and unable to reach his brother by phone, as mobile networks weren’t working during the clashes.

To Saber, there is no such thing as a reasonable loss of life.

"Reasonable? Who would say that? This is reasonable?"

More: Egypt protests continue as US 'strongly condemns' crackdown

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