Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman, this is The World. It's been a grim and discouraging day for Egypt's young democracy. Violence erupted when supporters of deposed president Mohammad Morsi gathered for prayers this morning outside the building in Cairo where they believed he was being detained. One woman described the scene to the BBC.

Woman: It was as if someone opened war on Egyptians, on Egyptians praying, giving them their back because the direction of the prayer was to give them their back, and they were shot in the back.

Werman: There are conflicting reports on how the shooting began. The military blames Morsi supporters, Morsi supporters blame the military. What is certain is that more than 50 civilians are dead, and hundreds injured. New York Times correspondent David Kirkpatrick is in Cairo, and he spoke with people who witnessed the attack.

David Kirkpatrick: We talked to a number of people on the ground at the scene of the attacks. I have to say the vast majority of witnesses are quite clear that the military and security forces opened fire with little or no provocation and continued shooting for a couple of hours over an area stretching, you know, hundreds of yards.

Werman: And I see from your Twitter feed that even one of the witnesses, I don't know if you spoke with him, who actually despises the Muslim Brotherhood, say the protestors were unarmed.

Kirkpatrick: Yeah, that's what was really convincing to me was the very polarized climate where people are quick to blame the other side, but when you hear somebody speaking against their own bias, that is a little bit of extra weight. I mean, I don't want to get caught up in a who shot first question because that's really not the big deal. The big deal is the kind of breakdown in civil cohesion and the emergence of civil strife, and maybe a return to authoritarianism.

Werman: I mean it's not a big stretch to see how this could lead, today's violence could lead, to tit for tat reprisals and just spins out of control. I mean, how does this violence change things now in Egypt?

Kirkpatrick: You know I don't want to make any predictions, but it feels a little weird to have people out in the streets now defending the military and the police when they used this kind of disproportionate force, and even maybe cheering on the police a little bit, and talking about maybe it's a good idea to lock up all the Islamists. That's not the sort of freedom of expression that many hoped would come out of Egyptian revolution.

Werman: Yeah, that is bizarre. Now speaking of Islamists, you reported David, over the weekend on the initial support of the military coup by the ultra-conservative Salafith party Al-Nour. Kind of odd, pretty strange bedfellows, you might say. What did they have to gain by going against the Muslim Brotherhood?

Kirkpatrick: In the run up to the overthrow of president Morsi, when things got so tense, and so polarized, and both sides of the divide were calling each other traitors, and nobody could say, look we're all Egyptians we just disagree, they were the only ones who said, everybody calm down, why don't you both compromise. You know, president Morsi, let's make some concessions. You know, you guys over there, stop making this a battle about Islam. Everybody calm down. They were the only ones to say that, and so when there was a real public outcry about president Morsi they said to him, look, you can't effectively govern anymore. You gotta do something here. And when he didn't they said, okay, look, the military coup is happening and we gotta go with it.
That story, I should say, is now probably obsolete, because in the aftermath of today's killings they've called it a massacre and they've broken with the coalition behind the military takeover.

Werman: Right, so Al-Noor called today's shooting a massacre. So help us understand what all this means going forward, in terms of political Islam in Egypt?

Kirkpatrick: One of the hopeful things about the revolution was that for the first time you had a really robust and open debate about what political Islam should mean and should want. A debate that I think everybody would consider healthy. That's all changed now because this sort of polarizing dynamic tends to push everybody to one side or the other. And you know, there's a kind of you're with us or you're against us. It's very discouraging.

Werman: And I mean, just how bad is the polarization right now?

Kirkpatrick: 51 people dead in the street, hundreds of others injured, and some people here seem to say that those mostly unarmed demonstrators deserved it. That is a pretty extreme example of polarization in my view.

Werman: That was New York Times correspondent David Kirkpatrick in Cairo.