CAIRO — Doctors say hospitals in Cairo are strained almost beyond their limits as casualty counts grow from daily clashes on the streets. Full morgues are also feeding anger, as families wait for their loved-ones' bodies to be released.
A week ago, Egypt’s military-led interim government and protesters in support of ousted president Mohamed Morsi were in a stalemate. For months, gun and rock battles had been sporadically breaking out in the streets. The government repeatedly told protesters to abandon sit-in camps in Cairo and protesters had repeatedly said they would rather die first.
Since the military broke up the sit-in camps by force last week, Amnesty International says 900 protesters and other civilians have died, along with nearly 100 soldiers and police. The Muslim Brotherhood, which organizes the protesters, estimates the number of dead to be far higher. All agree that thousands of people have been injured.
Marches continue, but now frequently descend into deadly clashes. The violence has taken other forms as well, including direct attacks on both security forces and prisoners. Neither side has said anything to indicate that it will compromise and locals say this chapter of Egyptian history will not end without more bloodshed.
Stretched to limit
In the meantime, hospitals are stretched to their limit and are running out of blood to treat the wounded. Dr. Motaz Ali Selim is a surgeon at Kasr el Ainy Faculty of Medicine at Cairo University. He has been treating the wounded and documenting the dead for months. “We have definitely used up our supplement of the blood in the clashes over the past couple of weeks. So there is definitely a desperate need for blood and blood donors, so everyone who can donate is more than welcome right now,” he stated.
Last Friday, at least 150 wounded individuals poured into his emergency room in a span of about two hours, stretching their staff to the limit, even with health workers not on shift turning up to lend a hand.
He said many were brought in dead or dying and hospital workers had to write reports and turn over the bodies to forensic scientists. Most patients, he said, who were carried in or brought on motorcycles during clashes had suffered gunshot wounds.
“It’s a very sad situation. Those are all young guys. You can see your brother, your best friend, the people working with you. They all really look alike - sort of like regular Egyptian people,” Selim said.
Cause of death disputes
According to protesters, when friends die from gunshot wounds, tensions are often worsened by disputes over the official cause of death at the morgue before the bodies are released. A man, who asked to be called only ‘Mohammad’ for security reasons, is a member of the National Committee for Legitimacy, an organization that works with the Muslim Brotherhood to organize their protests.
“They blackmail the families of those people who got shot to sign papers that their relatives died out of natural causes or even at times out of suicide," Mohammad explained. "There is a guy - they forced his dad to sign a paper saying he shot himself three times in the head."
Some say this practice is to increase efficiency and get the bodies back to the families for the quick burials called for by Islam. Others say it is so authorities can avoid taking responsibility.
Despite the suffering on all sides, many people in Egypt say the crackdown is justified.
Mohammad Hisham, spokesperson for the Democratic Revolutionary Alliance, an umbrella organization of several political parties that support the interim government, said attacks on Muslim Brotherhood protests avert what could be even more violence. “What’s going on now is not a kind of peaceful demonstration or protests… but it’s a confrontation with organized terrorist groups,” he explained.
Scores of Muslim Brotherhood members have been arrested in the past week, including leader Mohamed Badie early Tuesday. Hisham said the group is armed, seeking to incite violence and a direct threat to future democracy in Egypt.
The Brotherhood vehemently denied these charges, but admitted that some of their supporters have appeared at protests with weapons.
Doctors said regardless of who is responsible for the fighting, people on both sides will continue to die if something does not change drastically. When asked if he can continue to work through the carnage, Selim said he and other health workers will stay on. “I don’t really think I have a choice on that. If it continues, then we need every single hand to help with trying to save all the lives you can,” he responded.
And lives continue to be lost daily, he said, with the wounded turning up in hospitals days after clashes. Egyptians are now bracing for more protests, crackdowns and large marches scheduled for August 30. Both protesters and their opponents said they are fighting for democracy, social justice and freedom.