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Egypt Demonstrations Turn Deadly


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Scott Simon is away. I'm Linda Wertheimer. In Cairo overnight, Egyptian police fired on supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi, killing dozens of people and wounding hundreds more.


WERTHEIMER: At one makeshift morgue, the names of the dead were read out as volunteers carried the bodies to waiting ambulances. We go to NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson in Cairo for the latest. Soraya, what can you tell us about this crackdown?

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Well, it came at the end of basically what you would call a mass protest that had been called by the military, by the top general in this country. He was basically seeking a popular mandate for what apparently the plans are now for the Muslim Brotherhood. And so depending on who you talk to, just like everything that's been going on recently, it's very difficult to get a clear answer.

The Interior Ministry claims that they stepped in to try and prevent the supports of ousted President Mohamed Morsi from tangling or clashing with anti-Morsi protestors, and then you have the Muslim Brotherhood saying that they were provoked - or that they were attacked unprovoked and that in fact live ammunition was used. Certainly, the doctors at the field hospitals where we had one of our local reporters go this morning, they were dealing with very intense injuries and a lot of dead people.

And it was clear that it extended beyond tear gas; that in fact, some live ammunition had been used, at least based on the forensics the doctors were seeing.

WERTHEIMER: So why is the government taking such a hard-line approach? Won't this just radicalize the president's supporters, President Morsi's supporters, polarize the country even more?

NELSON: Well, some of the analysts that we spoke too, for example, Shadi Hamid, who heads research at the Brookings Doha Center, says that it seems the military is moving now to basically dismantle the Brotherhood, if you will. They've taken this sort of violent approach. Certainly, some of the words that we've heard in recent days where they were starting to refer to - I should say the top generals starting to refer Muslim Brotherhood people as potential terrorists, that sort of thing, that they were going to go with this sort of violent approach and violent put down, if you will, of this ongoing protest.

WERTHEIMER: Soraya, how has the Muslim Brotherhood responded?

NELSON: Well, they are very, very upset, needless to say. They're calling this a massacre. They say the green light's been given to basically wipe them out. And they are determined to stay out there and to be in the streets. At this point, they feel that is the only option and that it's the last chance for democracy in Egypt, from their vantage point.

WERTHEIMER: Now, the violence came after a night of mass protests which were called for by the head of the army. From what you can gather, do you think that Egyptians are still behind Morsi's ouster?

NELSON: Well, certainly the numbers that we're seeing of people who turned out for the protest that was called for by General al-Sisi, who's the head of the armed forces here, suggests that there is a great popular groundswell.

WERTHEIMER: Now, the military and the interim government say the steps they are taking are necessary to preserve democracy. Do you think people in the streets think that's true? Aren't they doing something that's almost the opposite of that?

NELSON: Well, certainly the supporters of the military's actions who we saw in great numbers in Tahrir Square and elsewhere last night feel this is the case. But it's hard to see when you're talking about a country that now has a suspended constitution, where the state of emergency law sort of looms large that this might be imposed, and that of course would suspend all civil rights.

Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Doha Center offered this analysis.

SHADI HAMID: The new Egypt is already, after just a few weeks, significantly more repressive and autocratic than it ever was under Morsi in terms of unaccountable leadership, military intervention in daily politics.

NELSON: He adds that he expects security forces are going to continue this violent crackdown on the pro-Morsi camp.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, speaking to us from Cairo, Egypt. Soraya, thank you.

NELSON: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.