'This Is Just the Beginning': A Bloody Night With Egypt's Protesters

Amid bullets and flames, opposition activists clash with regime supporters over President Morsi's attempted expansion of executive authority.

An anti-Morsi protester attempts to pick up a tear gas canister thrown by riot police during clashes in front of the presidential palace in Cairo. (Amr Dalsh/Reuters)

The blast echoed from somewhere near the front lines. A fragment -- probably a shotgun pellet -- ricocheted into Muhammad Abdel Aziz's face. He flinched and touched his cheek -- no wound, this time. Earlier, three or four had gashed his chin and swelled one side of his jaw, spattering his striped shirt with blood.

Shouts, explosions and gunfire echoed from all around the glass-carpeted streets. In an alley, Abdel Aziz found shelter from the chaos that had engulfed the neighborhood surrounding Egypt's presidential palace. He had come to protest against President Mohamed Morsi and was treated in a field clinic -- a café on normal days -- after being shot.

Drums of the president's opponents signaled their approach, and the two sides whipped rocks back and forth over a thin rank of riot police. Now behind the pro-Morsi lines and wary not to betray his feelings to the Islamist partisans thronging the road, Abdel Aziz, a tall, rotund, and gray-haired securities trader, confided quietly that he thought the Muslim Brotherhood was dragging Egypt down Iran's path to theocracy. "This is just the beginning," he said.

It was Wednesday night, just four days after Egypt's constituent assembly had rushed a draft constitution to completion in the face of nearly two-dozen walkouts. Protesters had been filling Tahrir Square for nearly two weeks since Morsi had declared himself and the assembly temporarily immune from judicial oversight . But the new constitution, written primarily by Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood and hardline Salafi allies, had swelled the protest's ranks on Tuesday to over 100,000 in Tahrir and, for the first time, outside the presidential palace.

By Wednesday afternoon, thousands of Morsi supporters had responded to the Brotherhood's call for a march to the palace. Dozens of protesters opposed to Morsi and the recent efforts to ram through the new constitution were still camped there after the massive Tuesday rally. It was the first time the Brotherhood had ordered its supporters into confrontation with the opposition after twice canceling or relocating marches for fear of violence. The result was a disaster.

Shortly after afternoon prayer, Morsi's supporters marched down Nadi Street in front of the palace, pushing aside the protesters' barricades. They threw stones and splashed water on women, witnesses said. Men tore down tents and ransacked food supplies while chanting Morsi's name, video showed. The crowd -- almost entirely Brotherhood members, Salafis, and other Islamist sympathizers -- occupied the street and painted over revolutionary graffiti on the palace walls.

These protesters argued that Morsi, as an elected president, had the right to issue the controversial decrees that placed himself and the assembly above judicial review. He was building Egypt's modern democracy in the face of corrupt state institutions, they said. They complained that the opposition protesters were funded and supplied with "expensive" goods by members of Hosni Mubarak's former regime. They claimed the Mubarak holdovers had allied with post-revolution opposition icons such as Mohamed ElBaradei and Hamdeen Sabahi to sabotage the Brotherhood.

News spread quickly that the opposition camp had been overrun. Morsi's supporters arranged barricades and piles of rocks, anticipating that crowds would return. Within a few hours, they did.

At around 6:30 p.m., Nadi Street erupted. Outside the posh Heliopolis Club, near the palace's front gate, Molotov cocktails thrown by the arriving opposition protesters exploded. Morsi's supporters, greater in number, charged forward and hurled rocks, shouting "God is great!" Opposition protesters, who later said the Morsi fighters were wielding shotguns, retreated into the wide intersection of Al Khalifa Al Maamoun Street.

Dozens of explosions and gunshots rang out from the front, where smoke and swirling dust filled the air over the heads of hundreds of men on two front lines separated by less than 200 feet. Rocks flew, and witnesses said both sides carried firearms. Molotov cocktails thrown by opposition fighters exploded in gusts of flame. Morsi's supporters rushed down darkened side alleys to flush out the protesters. Men screamed for reinforcements, waving their arms. The crowd chanted, "With our soul, our blood, we'll sacrifice for you Islam!"

Pro-Morsi fighters carried back several wounded men, some clutching bandages to bleeding head wounds. Others dragged captured opponents, beating them savagely with sticks and fists before others convinced them to stop. One beaten man lay on the street surrounded by a mob, his eyes lolling dumbly side-to-side in his swollen face, illuminated by cell phones held overhead. The group lifted him and carried him toward the palace.

Residents caught behind the lines watched from barricaded shop fronts and a gas station rooftop. A woman 10 floors above threw a glass bottle at Morsi supporters from her balcony, as a neighborhood man asked for directions to a nearby square to find his injured brother. "Look what the Muslim Brotherhood do to us," he said.

In the chaos of the melee, it was impossible to tell whether Morsi's supporters had any coordination. The Brotherhood's famously disciplined ground operation had earned the movement victories in every election since the revolution. Had they now lost control over their cadres, or did they want the fighting to continue?

Throughout the night, shots rang out from both sides -- larger blasts amid the staccato pop of pistols. In one video of the fighting posted online, a man in a motorcycle helmet among the Morsi supporters can be seen firing a shotgun several times toward the opposition crowd. In another, an edited compilation of multiple clips, numerous young men among the opposition can be seen firing pistols.

Late in the night, a pro-revolution activist who had been fighting since the afternoon said he had witnessed three men among the opposition fire handguns. "I saw three, so that probably means there were 10 or 15 total," he said. "Nobody wants to go up and say, 'Hey, don't shoot,' because the guy has a gun, and also he's on your side, and you're in the middle of the fighting."

Among those confirmed dead were Christian protester Karam Gergious and Al Husseiny Aboul Deif, an activist and journalist for Al Fagr newspaper, but affiliations among the hundreds of casualties were hard to discern. Many fighting for Morsi were seriously injured. One middle-aged man, his face pale and his thin hair matted with sweat, was carried back from the front with what those around him said was a bullet wound to his leg.

An hour and a half into the battle, Morsi supporters far behind the front lines called others to pull back behind a new line of fewer than 100 helmeted and shield-carrying riot police. As the police advanced, the packed crowd followed, chanting "God is great!" and "The police and the people are one hand!" Outnumbered and unprepared, the police rushed off to separate the fighters on another street. They succeeded only in allowing both sides to throw rocks over their heads.

Over several hours, Morsi's opponents gained supporters and pushed forward. Among their ranks were children carrying Molotovs and throwing rocks, while young men and women broke stones to supply the front. By midnight, the two sides had reached a standoff on Nadi Street near the site of the original clash. Crowds of Morsi supporters stood among riot police who fired barrages of tear gas to disperse Molotov-lobbing opposition fighters.

The sound of gunshots continued through the night. A young man in a black jacket with curly hair was slumped over the back of a motorcycle and driven away, leaving a thin line of blood drops in its trail. Protesters claimed he had been shot by live bullets, but paramedics said they had seen mostly rock and shotgun pellet injuries.

After more than an hour standing their ground against the tear gas, the opposition crowd suddenly fled in headlong retreat. They recovered and formed another front, now back in the wide square with Al Khalifa Al Maamoun Street. The Morsi fighters had charged down Nadi Street after them carrying a row of metal barricades, which now mounted an impenetrable front.

Morsi opponents lobbed rocks and Molotovs over the barricade. Green lasers, used by both sides to identify and blind opponents, tracked over pock-marked and soot-stained walls. On the far right flank, against a building's exterior wall where residual fires licked up tree limbs, both sides surged and fought hand-to-hand. Morsi supporters rushed from behind their barricade in a failed attempt to grab an incapacitated man.

To the many watching, the fighting was a depressing turn. Two factions who had united last year to protect Tahrir Square against mobs of Mubarak supporters were now killing each other in the streets. A Brotherhood-led government that had promised dialogue and moderation had barely hesitated to dispatch supporters, fired with religious fervor, to overwhelm the opposition. Morsi, the leader who promised a packed Tahrir after winning election that his legitimacy derived from the people, did not even publicly address the violence until late Thursday night, placing blame on paid infiltrators and thugs.

Throughout the square and atop Al Khalifa Al Maamoun's raised, tree-lined median, crowds of protesters watched the frontline fighters dodge incoming rocks and hurl Molotovs, earning a cheer each time one made it over the barricade.

Among the onlookers was Shady El Ghazaly Harb, a prominent liberal who was a member of the influential revolutionary youth coalition during the 18 days of revolt before Mubarak's fall. Wearing an earpiece connected to his mobile phone, he paced as friends called with news of confirmed deaths and television coverage. Hands in his pockets, he watched the fighting. "Is there any way Morsi stays after this?" he asked.