By Richard Spencer, Louisa Loveluck and Magdy Samaan in Cairo
Monday saw rows of policemen’s corpses lying in the desert, apparently shot down in cold blood by Islamist militants, in images that were balanced against unconvincing regime explanations of a mass killing of detained protesters.
The prisoners died as a convoy transferring them from one jail to another north of Cairo, Abu Zaabal, came under attack from radicals trying to free them, one official “source” told the media.
Another said they had tried to escape, and were suffocated in their van from the effects of tear gas used to try to stop them.
Yet another official from the interior ministry said they had taken a police officer hostage and the clashes happened as they tried to free him.
All of these stories suggest an excruciating end for the 37 dead, packed into a prison vehicle in the heat of summer as it was attacked with tear gas and, it would appear, live ammunition. None gave any real explanation to Abdelazim Ali, summoned to the central Cairo morgue to collect the body of his son Talaat. He said he last saw his son last week when he went out to buy bread.
Mr Ali had no idea how his son came to end up on the mortuary floor. The body had a bullet wound in the chest that was blistered, possibly from the effects of gas, and had signs of being beaten, he said.
He said his son was not a Muslim Brotherhood supporter. “He doesn’t even pray,” he said. “For days I heard nothing,” said his father. “But now he is on the floor of the morgue.”
Morgue officials said at least five of the dead had bullet wounds to head or chest.
Egypt’s centralised state, overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim rather is not the patchwork of faiths and ethnic groups that is Syria. Its make-up has led many on both sides in the power struggle to dismiss comparisons.
Khaled Mostafa, a translator speaking at an “anti-coup” rally, said that unlike the Syrian army, divided between Sunni and Alawite, the Egyptian army was at least united.
“Syria was divided from the beginning,” he said. Other pro-Morsi groups, though, claim there are already splits appearing, reporting rumours of senior officers under house arrest for refusing to go along with the military leadership.
And while Egypt’s divisions run through the country, with no clear geographic division as in Syria, there is one part, Sinai, which is already falling out of control.
On Monday, minibuses carrying conscript members of the central security force, a police paramilitary unit, away on leave was forced off the road near their base outside the town of Rafah, close to the Gaza border. They were shot where they stood, the authorities giving a death toll of 25.
Grim photographs published online, too gory to be reproduced, suggested they had been murdered execution-style, as in a number of killings of regime soldiers in Syria by al-Qaeda-linked rebel groups.
Yet as in Syria the pictures also raised doubts: the bodies appeared to have been lined up after death. The hands of one were behind his back, as if tied, yet there was no binding.
The Muslim Brotherhood immediately issued a condemnation of the attack, but at the same time raised the possibility – with no evidence – that it had been the work of the regime itself, intending to distract attention from the prison killings.
The authorities ordered an investigation into all the deaths of the last week. But a former MP and Brotherhood leader called for a foreign-led inquiry.
“A neutral committee must be formed to investigate, not in Egypt, as there is no true system of justice here,” Ahmed Abu Baraka said. “We are in a state of war, undertaken by a regime against humanity.”
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