Security Forces Move In On Egyptian Protests

After days of tense standoff in Cairo, Egyptian security forces began clearing two sit-in camps by supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi. The Interior Ministry, which is in charge of police, warned in a statement that the forces would deal firmly with protesters acting "irresponsibly."

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene. Good morning.

Minutes ago, the military-led government of Egypt declared a state of emergency throughout the country. The move comes after a day of deadly street clashes between the security forces and supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood movement. Hundreds of people have been arrested, and scores have been killed, though there are conflicting estimates about the death toll.

One British journalist has been killed covering the mayhem, and deaths have been reported in cities around the country. It all started in the early morning hours when security forces stormed two large protest camps.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

GREENE: Some of the sounds this morning from Cairo. We're joined now by NPR's Cairo bureau chief Leila Fadel. And Leila, what are we hearing here?

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Well, in this moment you're hearing people respond to teargas being fired into a crowd of protesters trying to get into the main sit-in in eastern Cairo. At this point smoke was billowing out of the sit-in, teargas being fired and later gunfire. The police opened gunfire on these protesters.

GREENE: OK. So we have these sit-ins of supporters of the ousted President Morsi. But you're saying people were actually - even as the government was trying to crack down on these areas, more people were trying to flow in to support the protesters.

FADEL: Yeah. What was so interesting is as we were making our way to these sit-ins, we saw marches across the country of people walking towards the main sit-in, saying - calling on people, saying the Muslim brothers, they're getting killed in the square. Come help us.

We saw people taking apart metal fences to take what - basically makeshift crowbars with them to defend themselves, and so many people telling us, we're going to stay in the streets. We are going to die for our rights. We won't live under what they call military rule, Muslim Brotherhood leaders calling this an all-out massacre.

GREENE: You described earlier when we spoke, Cairo seemed like a war zone. What have you been seeing all morning?

FADEL: It really does seem like a war zone: smoke billowing everywhere, gunfire, indiscriminate gunfire going everywhere, journalists being - not being allowed to go into the sit-ins and then also being shot at if they try to go inside. Many trying to reach the field hospital had to go through an alley where snipers were firing from rooftops. So it's made it very difficult for us to verify anything.

We're hearing about hundreds of people dead just in Cairo, but that's almost impossible to confirm. We're seeing video footage of dozens of corpses from inside that sit-in.

GREENE: And as far as we know right now, I mean when you think about people flowing in, adding to the numbers in these sites, has the government successfully cleared this big sit-in near where you are, or are the numbers still growing there?

FADEL: They have not cleared that sit-in yet. Actually, we are seeing smaller numbers now mostly because once people go out, they cannot get back in. So many people inside saying they don't have medical supplies to treat people. The hospital nearby that sit-in, we also tried to get into that hospital. We were not allowed by the military.

So, again, it's very difficult to confirm, but it is getting smaller from what we can tell right now. They've already successfully cleared another sit-in, one of the other major sit-ins here in Cairo, earlier in the morning.

GREENE: Let's talk about the context for all this if we can, Leila. We have these supporters of Morsi who have been in these protest sites for some time now. Why did the government, the military rulers, decide that they had to go in there and clear these places out now?

FADEL: Well, these sit-ins have been going on for weeks since the ouster of the former president, Mohammed Morsi, who's still in detention here, and their supporters saying they won't leave the streets until he's reinstated, and they will - at this point it has been a standoff between the military-appointed government and the supporters of Morsi, who say he's the legitimate president.

The military-appointed government says this was the last option for them, but it has turned out today to be a bloodbath, honestly, and we're seeing much more civil strife than we did see even in the last few weeks, hundreds of people already killed in violence that let up today, but possibly today the bloodiest day since the ouster of Morsi.

GREENE: And one important thing to note. You said moments ago this is not just Cairo. This has been spreading to elsewhere in the country already.

FADEL: That's right. It's all over the country. We're hearing of reports of nine people killed in Fayoum. We've been watching the wounded being ferried out there in Alexandria and Suez, attacks in Assiut and Minya, sectarian clashes going on. It is a dangerous, dangerous moment for Egypt.

GREENE: All right. We'll be following this story all morning. That's NPR's Leila Fadel joining us from Cairo. Leila, thanks a lot.

FADEL: Thank you.

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