How could the dead rest? Their wooden coffins banged against the iron gates of the mortuary, the families shrieked with horror, the cellophane-wrapped corpses were piled high with blocks of ice so massive they could break the bones of the dead. And, as the ice melted in the heat outside the mortuary in streets glistening with mud, so the coffins began to fill with reliquefied blood, a crimson slush at the bottom. “Martyrs” all.
And I guess it was then that I realised – as Mohamed Morsi’s enemies must have understood many months ago – that the corpses, the bodies, the cadavers, the “martyrs” – they are the official statement of the Muslim Brotherhood. That’s it. There is no further comment, partly because they cannot speak – Thomas Cromwell, I seem to remember, was among the first to associate silence with the dead – and partly because they do not need to. The police do the shooting and the result – the bullet smashing into the living – becomes the ultimate political policy. From this, there is no end.
The Zeinhom area of Sayyidah Zaynab in Cairo is a poor neighbourhood of dirty coffee shops and garbage-littered streets and those distressing Nile mud-cement buildings that lie against each other in the 37C heat. Would it be possible to find a more depressing street for the thousands of angry Brotherhood men and women and their grieving relatives?
Families in Cairo sometimes ask to witness the autopsies of their menfolk so the cries that filled the hot air in Zeinhom today were more than just rituals of mourning. Some had chosen to see the dead – that ultimate statement – in all their reality. I counted more than 70 corpses, although some coffins were piled atop each other and huge men pushed and shoved their way into the mortuary and stumbled on the ice and those awful cellophane bags.
The faces of the dead were concealed beneath the knots of the cellophane bags, their ghastly but invisible presence alleviated from time to time by the relief of seeing pairs of feet still wearing cheap rubber-soled shoes poking from the bottom of the stretchers and resting on the floors of the coffins. There was talk among these men and women of approaching policemen – I never saw them – and of an attack on the Giza governorate on the way to the Pyramids. Set afire, they said with enthusiasm. And so back to the old question. How many dead?
Down a side street, I found Abeer Saady, a reporter of Shorouk newspaper, vice-chairperson of the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate, watching the crowds before she searched for the body of a colleague, 27-year-old Ahmed Abdul Dawed, a Muslim Brotherhood supporter who worked – irony of ironies – for the government newspaper al-Akhbar. “The Brotherhood wants the figures of dead to be high, the government want the figures low,” she said sadly. “Certainly, they are much more than the 194 the government originally announced. I think perhaps between 350 and 500 dead.”
But if I’ve just seen 70 of the dead, I suspect the fatalities may well have touched 1,000. Or more. Other Arab journalists paid the same price as Ahmed Dawed. Habiba Ahmed Abd Elaziz worked for Gulf News but was officially on leave when she was shot dead near the Rabaa al-Adawiyeh mosque in Nasr City. Brotherhood supporters long ago abandoned any affection for local newspapers here but still have time for the infidels of the foreign press. Even so, they were distant in their replies.
“Who is this?” I asked of a youth standing beside a body covered in a big keffiyeh scarf. “What does it matter to you?” was his reply. I muttered something stupid, that he was a human being and deserved a name, and the man shrugged. An old man sitting on the lid of a coffin said that a man called Adham lay inside the box. I persisted. Names surely gave reality to the dead. “Mahmoud Mustafa,” another man shouted at me when I pointed to the ice which crushed the mound of his dead son. Another man told me he was guarding the corpse of Mohamed Fared Mutwali, who was 57 when he was killed by the police on Wednesday. Slowly the names brought the dead to life.
Then a smart young man who wanted to speak in English but was crying, put his hand on my arm and pointed to another cellophane shape. “This was my brother,” he said. “He was shot yesterday. He was a doctor. His name was Dr Khaled Kamal and he trained in medicine in Beni Suef in Upper Egypt.” And the crowd took up the only word they understood and shouted “doctor, doctor” over and over again.
You could not see these things and hear these words and believe that Egypt’s tragedy would be buried with the dead today. And this morning – and how the holiest day in the Muslim week has now, throughout the Arab world, come to be associated with violence as much as prayer – the Brotherhood will remember their dead in the mosques of Cairo and Egyptians will wait for the government’s reaction, the police reaction, the army’s reaction, the response of General Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi.
Of course, you can try to balance the pain outside the mortuary with the “normality” that the government wants us all to enjoy in Cairo, the open roads, the trucks cleaning up the wreckage of the Nasr City encampment, the scheduled reopening of the rail service between Cairo and Alexandria. But there are small things about the place of the dead which stay in the mind. The man who encourages me to go into the mortuary never stops praying, the cheerful bright blue plastic which lines one coffin and the incongruity of seeing an Etihad Airways label weirdly pasted on one end.
In the parallel street, two coffee vendors have been arguing and then fighting and suddenly the roadway is littered with glass and stones as people come out of those grubby apartments – men sympathetic to the government who suddenly believe that the smaller of the two vendors was a Brotherhood sympathiser; then a gang of Morsi men turn up and start chucking stones too. A little microcosmic anarchy to remind you of the fragility of Cairo. It should be good to return to the comparative safety of the old Marriott Hotel on the banks of the Nile. But it is not. No sooner do I reach my favourite Cairo home-from-home than I learn that Ra’ad Nabil – a tourist policeman working for years in the hotel grounds – was walking home across the river in Mohandeseen a few hours earlier when a group of local men threatened him. He drew his gun and fired it in the air. But one of the men seized the weapon and pointed it at Ra’ad Nabil – a harmless man in his early fifties – and shot him in the heart. What I wonder, does that tell us? Most certainly, another statement.
Last words: Victim’s texts with her mother
Among the many casualties of Wednesday’s violence in Cairo was a young reporter named Habiba Ahmed Abd Elaziz. Habiba, a 26-year-old Egyptian who was on leave from her job in Dubai, was killed as police cleared the Muslim Brotherhood protest camp in Rabaa. Habiba was one of three reporters killed during the protests. Her mother, Sabreen Mangoud, has since released a series of text messages she exchanged with her daughter on the day of her death.
Mother: Habiba, what’s going on there? I went to sleep at 1:30, that’s 11:30 your time. What’s with the attack?
Habiba: The army and the police are indeed moving around the gates. The media centre was turned into a field hospital and the square is on high alert.
Mother: Where are you?
Habiba: Only journalists were allowed to remain in the building. I’m supposed to cover the monument in case the battle starts.
Mother: The monument is a bit far from Rabia.
Habiba: Field security is at every gate now. I am in the media centre. It isn’t far at all in fact, and the door is big and it can be broken through easily.
Mother: Are there too many police and army troops?
Habiba: Yes, but their movements may also be a “nerve war” tactic.
Mother: How will you get to the monument?
Habiba: I will walk like everybody else, or run. It depends on the situation.
Mother: God help us.
Mother: What’s new?
Habiba: Foreign reporters just got to the centre.
Mother: I mean what’s new with the crowds? How are you?
Habiba: I took three kinds of medication. It’s very cold here and I’m shivering. Pray for us, mother.
Mother: God, keep us steadfast and give us power. God, grant us power over their necks. I entrust you to God the Almighty.
Habiba: I’m heading to the platform in a little while. There are tanks there.
Mother: God grant us steadfastness. God grant us victory.
Mother: Habiba, please reassure me. I’ve called thousands of times. Please, my darling, I’m worried sick. Tell me how you are.