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Scene From A Cairo Mosque Turned Morgue

A man walks among shrouded bodies at a Cairo mosque on Thursday. At the El-Iman mosque, more than 200 bodies were being prepared for burial, the victims killed in a crackdown on protesters by Egypt's military-backed government.
Khaled Desouki
AFP/Getty Images
A man walks among shrouded bodies at a Cairo mosque on Thursday. At the El-Iman mosque, more than 200 bodies were being prepared for burial, the victims killed in a crackdown on protesters by Egypt's military-backed government.

After the bloodshed, comes the grief.

A man weeps as he surveys row upon row of corpses. Some are completely burned. "They are all my brothers," he cries.

Nearby, men methodically break apart blocks of ice in two caskets inside this Cairo mosque. They then place them under the bodies to stop them from decomposing.

But still the sickly sweet smell of death hangs in the air.

Volunteers burn incense and spray air freshener to mask it, but that only adds to the stifling atmosphere.

Everywhere you look families cry out in sorrow. More than 200 bodies are being prepared for burial here, at the El-Iman mosque.

These corpses were brought to this place after the main camp for Morsi supporters was forcibly evacuated and set on fire by security forces Wednesday night. The blazes lit up the night sky and on Thursday, ashes still smolder.

Families preparing to bury the dead say they've been facing hurdles. They need a government-issued certificate with the cause of death. They're claiming that the state is pressuring relatives to say the victims committed suicide or died of natural causes.

A woman rails against Egypt's head of police. "God burn him. God take vengeance on him," she cries.

Nearby a father and son have received the worst news. They sit huddled together in shock dealing with the loss of a son, a brother. His name was Omar.

"He was a hero," says Omar's brother, Mohamed Abdel Moneim. "He was shot saving others who were under fire, helping the wounded."

But if the brutal crackdown was supposed to put an end to the turmoil here, it seems to have had the opposite effect.

At the entrance of the mosque people chant defiantly: "Oh Martyrs sleep, and we will continue the struggle," they say. "Wait for us at heaven's gate."

Hundreds are gathered in support of Morsi and against the military.

Amr Mohammed wanders into the area. The bespectacled consultant works nearby. He and a protester begin to argue over Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood leader who became Egypt's first democratically elected president but was ousted by the military last month.

The protester yells, "You want me to forgo the ballot box, and let them throw my vote in the trash?"

Mohammed responds, "The votes that were cast are gone now, we don't want strife."

"This isn't strife," says the protester, "this is an uprising for rights."

A man nearby shushes them. This isn't the time or the place, he says. Behind them more bodies are being carried in and out of the mosque.

Mohammed blames the brotherhood for bringing Egypt to this point. The protesters were warned to disperse and they refused, he says. Later, I ask him why he came to this pro-Morsi protest: "People I believe should talk to each other. Other than this it's a disaster. We are divided, and we will continue to be more and more divided. It cannot continue like this."

It's a lone voice of reason in a country that seems to be hurtling into an abyss.

And the violence is continuing although much less widespread than Wednesday. A mob stormed a government building in Giza and set it on fire. And in Sinai at least seven soldiers were shot dead by unknown assailants. Forty-three members of the security services were killed Wednesday.

The rhetoric from the government has hardened. The Cabinet issued an ominous statement saying it was determined to counter "terrorist acts" and will use force in the face of any attacks on citizens or the state.

Civilians are being referred to military trials. Yet another sign of the army taking control of the state.

At a press briefing at the Foreign Ministry, officials showed video of dead policemen and Morsi supporters firing weapons during Wednesday's clashes. Deputy Foreign Minister Hatem Seif el Nasr defended the decision to impose a state of emergency: "If you don't impose a state of emergency in a situation like this when are you going to impose it?"

At nightfall, Muslim Brotherhood leaders called for protest marches in Cairo and elsewhere in defiance of the government-ordered curfew.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Leila Fadel
Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.