Egyptian security services opened fire on supporters of deposed President Mohamed Morsi during early morning worship today, killing 51 people in less than 30 minutes and plunging the polarized nation deeper into crisis. The spasm of violence marked the bloodiest incident in a week of nationwide unrest that has followed Mr. Morsi's ouster.
The Egyptian military has defended opening fire as an act of protection, risking an even greater backlash from Islamist supporters who already feel deeply aggrieved at the Army's role in last week's coup.
Eyewitnesses reported that both police and military forces opened fire on a crowd of the president's supporters as they prayed outside a military facility. In addition to the 51 people killed, more than 430 were wounded, according to the Egyptian Health Ministry.
The protesters have been staging a sit-in outside the Republican Guard Officers Club since Friday, after Army officers shot and killed three during demonstrations supporting Morsi. Many of those gathered outside believed that the former president was being held in the facility.
In response to what it described as a "massacre," the Islamist Freedom and Justice Party issued a statement calling for "an uprising by the great people of Egypt against those trying to steal the revolution with tanks" – a reference to the Egyptian military, who last week ousted the Islamists' democratically elected president.
Empty bullet cartridges that protesters retrieved from the scene suggested that the weapons belonged to the Egyptian military. An independent munitions expert, Nic Jenzen Jones, confirmed that they were Egyptian military issue after seeing photographs of the bullets.
Those in the crowd reported that troops opened fire on worshipers as they lay prostrate on the ground during morning prayer. Although it remains unclear who initiated the clash, one eyewitness on the pro-Morsi side said the firing began after a soldier was shot. The origin of that bullet remains unknown.
The soldiers reportedly fired tear gas and warning shots into the air, and, shortly after, opened fire on the crowd.
"I was on the security team so I prayed five minutes before everyone else. When I finished, they opened fire," says Yehia Youssef, who had been camping outside the military facility in support of Morsi. "So many fell."
Egypt's Health Ministry has confirmed that women and children were among the dead.
Pro-Morsi demonstrators have been camped in three locations across Cairo since the president's ouster. Carrying banners emblazoned with Morsi's face, they say they will not leave until he has been released. Many demonstrators say that they lost their only reward from Egypt's January 2011 revolution: a democratically elected president.
"We were out on the street to defend legitimacy," says Essam Yehia, a young doctor working inside a makeshift hospital where casualties were brought all morning. "But then the Army shot us in broad daylight." The young doctor said that the facility was struggling to cope with the influx of injured patients.
In the days running up to the coup, millions of Egyptians took to the streets to denounce his record in office and call for his resignation. Opponents say he failed to fulfill the promises of their revolution, doing little to avert Egypt's economic nose dive or to reform the hated security services.
The Egyptian Armed Forces said that this morning's shootings took place after "armed terrorists" stormed the military facility, leaving one officer dead. Although eyewitnesses at the scene confirmed that one soldier had died, the Army's claim that the facility was first stormed remains uncorroborated.
In a press conference, military spokesman Ahmed Ali offered his condolences to the Egyptian people, but defended the killings by saying that "every country would allow soldiers to protect a military installation."
"We have been on the streets protecting citizens for 10 days," he said. "It is our duty to protect you."