CAIRO — The Egyptian authorities unleashed a ferocious attack on Islamist protesters early Saturday, killing at least 72 people in the second mass killing of demonstrators in three weeks and the deadliest attack by the security services since Egypt’s uprising in early 2011.
The attack provided further evidence that Egypt’s security establishment was reasserting its dominance after President Mohammed Morsi’s ouster three weeks ago, and widening its crackdown on his Islamist allies in the Muslim Brotherhood. The tactics — many victims were killed with gunshot wounds to the head or the chest — suggested that Egypt’s security services felt no need to show any restraint.
“They had orders to shoot to kill,” said Gehad el-Haddad, a Brotherhood spokesman. The message, he said, was, “This is the new regime.”
In Washington, Secretary of State John Kerry called this “a pivotal moment for Egypt” and urged its leaders “to help their country take a step back from the brink.”
The killings occurred a day after hundreds of thousands of Egyptians marched in support of the military, responding to a call by its commander for a “mandate” to fight terrorism. The appeal by Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who has emerged as Egypt’s de facto leader since the military removed Morsi from power, was widely seen as a green light to the security forces to increase their repression of the Islamists.
In the attack Saturday, civilians joined police officers in firing live ammunition at the protesters. By early morning, the flood of wounded people had overwhelmed doctors at a nearby field hospital.
One doctor sat by himself, crying as he whispered verses from the Quran. Nearby, medics tried to revive a man on a gurney. When they failed he was quickly lifted away, to make room for the many others.
With hundreds of people gravely wounded, the toll seemed certain to rise, and by Saturday evening had surpassed the more than 60 deaths on July 8, when soldiers and police officers fired on pro-Morsi demonstrators.
As the deaths have mounted, more than 200 since the government was overthrown, hopes have faded for a political solution to the standoff between the military and the Brotherhood, whose leaders, including Morsi, are imprisoned or preparing themselves for jail.
In a televised news conference hours after the clash, Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim absolved his men of any responsibility. His officers, he said, “have never and will never shoot a bullet on any Egyptian.”
He blamed the Brotherhood for the deaths, referring to its leaders as “those who preach and incite violence.” And he suggested that further repression was imminent as the authorities prepared to break up sit-ins that thousands of Morsi’s supporters have held for weeks.
Ibrahim said he hoped the protesters would be “reasonable” and remove themselves voluntarily to avoid further bloodshed.
“We all hope and want the sit-ins to be broken up now, but blood is precious for us as well,” he said. “Be sure that dispersing the sit-in with force will lead to losses.”
Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who is vice president in the interim government, added a rare note of support for the Brotherhood from the country’s new leaders, writing on Twitter that he condemned the “excessive use of force” and was trying to “end the standoff in a peaceful manner.”
Kerry called on Egypt’s leaders “to respect the right of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression” and to open an inclusive political dialogue.
“Over two years ago, a revolution began. Its final verdict is not yet decided, but it will be forever impacted by what happens right now,” he said in a statement.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel spoke by telephone with el-Sissi, urging him to exercise restraint and “take steps to prevent further bloodshed and loss of life,” according to a Pentagon statement.
The violence broke out Friday night after a day of large, competing marches by supporters of Morsi and his opponents expressing solidarity with the military. At least eight people died Friday, but there was not the kind of widespread violence that many had feared after el-Sissi’s speech Wednesday calling for demonstrations in support of the military.
That changed around 10:30 p.m., when groups of Morsi’s supporters left their vast encampment in Nasr City, marching toward the central October 6 Bridge, where police officers were stationed, according to witnesses. Several people said the protesters had left the camp because it had become overcrowded, and that people had fanned out from the encampment along several boulevards. Others said they had planned to march through a nearby neighborhood.
The group that came under attack walked down Nasr Street, past the reviewing stand where President Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981, and the pyramid-shaped memorial to the unknown soldier across the street, toward the bridge.
“We didn’t have any weapons,” said Mohamed Abdulhadi, who said he had joined the march, which was “not violent.” More than 10 other witnesses confirmed his assertion.
The Interior Ministry released a video after the killings that it said showed Morsi supporters firing birdshot at the police and damaging property. It showed protesters throwing rocks, unidentified people wandering into traffic, and one man pulling out what appeared to be a silver pistol and firing it, although it is not clear who the man was or which side of the fighting he was on.
Mohamed Saeed, 27, an agricultural engineer, said he and some of the other protesters had started to exchange words with the officers before even reaching the bridge.
“You know how it is,” he said. “Some of us said some provocative things, and the tear gas started.” The protesters threw rocks, and the confrontation quickly escalated, Saeed and others said. The Morsi supporters feared that the police were preparing to storm their encampment, so they started building brick walls on the road to “to prevent them from coming into the sit-in,” Saeed said.
An hour and a half after the clashes started, the police and their allies started firing live ammunition and pellet guns, Saeed said. Other witnesses said they had seen snipers on the roofs of nearby buildings.
Later Saturday, the Health Ministry said 72 people had been killed. The Brotherhood said it had counted 66 dead and classified an additional 61 people as “clinically dead.”
The violence left the Brotherhood in an increasingly dire position, facing the prospect of a ban of the kind it suffered before the uprising against President Hosni Mubarak. Its options at this point are limited, said Samer S. Shehata, a professor of Arab politics at the University of Oklahoma and an authority on the group. “They really can’t resort to violence,” he said. “They don’t have a militia and it runs against all their rhetoric and recent history.”
Ibrahim, the interior minister, raised the prospect of a new threat to the Brotherhood, saying Saturday that he was reconstituting a state security agency that under Mubarak was responsible for monitoring Islamists and known for carrying out torture and forced disappearances. Without security agencies that have a political focus, Ibrahim said, “the security of the country doesn’t work.”