CAIRO, Egypt — The tired and frantic medical workers at the field hospital outside Cairo’s Rabaa al-Adaweya mosque were busy restocking supplies — medicine, bandages, ice for the wounded.
The night before, in the early hours of Saturday morning, police killed dozens of protesters from the mass sit-in the field hospital services. They are supporters of ousted president and Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi, and they have been camped out for weeks to oppose the military coup that swept him from power July 3.
“You see this room,” said Dr. Amer Gamal, who is part of the team documenting those treated at the makeshift medical center. He pointed to the large room filled with medical equipment and patients still being treated from last night's injuries.
“It was filled with bodies,” he said. “We stayed two hours to clean up the blood.”
After a day of rival but relatively peaceful protests in Cairo — both in support of Egypt’s military head, Abdul Fattah al-Sisi and counter protests backing Morsi — the violence in the capital started just before midnight Saturday.
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Sisi had called Egyptians to rally Friday for the military so he could claim a “mandate” to fight “terrorism.” Many feared he would use it as a cover to clamp down on his Brotherhood opponents.
As pro-military demonstrators in Tahrir Square cheered on the armed forces under fireworks and cheerily climbed atop tanks, the protest at Rabaa descended into chaos.
Some reports said demonstrators from the Rabaa sit-in had attempted to expand their protest to the nearby 6th of October Bridge, where police blocked their way. Police claim the protesters had tried to halt traffic on the bridge, one of Cairo’s main thoroughfares.
It is unclear how the clashes kicked off — who threw the first stone or fired the first shot — but at least 72 protesters were killed, according to Egypt’s health ministry. Gamal and Brotherhood leaders put the death toll much higher, with more than 120 dead.
Live bullets killed most of the dead, doctors said.
The gunshot wounds “were almost exclusively in the head, the neck and the chest,” Gamal said.
Interior minister Mohamed Ibrahim announced Saturday that his forces were preparing to clear the Rabaa protest.
But Morsi supporters were defiant, saying they would hold their ground until their leader is released from detention and reinstated as Egypt’s elected president.
Egyptian voters elected Morsi in the country’s first free polls last June. But his year in office was marked by an unstable economy, political polarization and continued unrest.
A movement called “Tamarod,” or rebellion in Arabic, called for protests on the anniversary of his inauguration June 30. Millions turned out to voice their opposition to his presidency, and the military stepped in to stage a dramatic coup d’etat.
The army is now holding Morsi in an undisclosed location, where military intelligence officers are interrogating the former president as part of a criminal investigation that could see Morsi imprisoned.
Before the protests Friday, Egyptian state media announced prosecutors were charging Morsi with coordinating with the Palestinian movement Hamas to break-out of prison during the 2011 uprising.
By the afternoon, most of the dead and seriously injured had been evacuated, but dozen lay exhausted or injured on mats sheltered only by blankets hung above. Just 17 years old, Yasser Mohammed laid on plastic mat across from the field hospital, his leg wrapped with blood-soaked gauze.
He said he was hit with a bird shot — small metal pellets used by police forces — as he stood peacefully with other protesters at Rabaa.
“I watched a man die in front of me. But no, I’m not scared,” Mohammed said, as a doctor cleaned his wounds. “We won’t leave because of this. The opposite — we will stay.”
With defiance from the Morsi camp and the military escalating its own rhetoric, many here are worried that the violence will only get worse. On July 8, security forces gunned down 51 Morsi supporters outside the army’s Republican Guard headquarters in Cairo.
Omar Ashour, a fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, a think tank, said the Brotherhood might have no options left.
If they go home, they will have conceded their democratic victories at the polls. But if they compromise and negotiate with the army-appointed government, there is no guarantee the military will keep their word to allow the Brotherhood to be part of the political transition, Ashour says.
There have been calls both from the US and Secretary-General Ban-ki Moon for Morsi’s release. US President Barack Obama halted the sale of F-16 fighter jets to Egypt last week, following Sisi’s call for demonstrations.
But the Obama administration has so far backed down from calling the military seizure of power a “coup,” leaving the $1.3 billion military aid package to Egypt in tact.
“It’s clear now in Egypt that the armed forces can tread on any democratic institution,” said Ashour.
Back at the field hospital, pharmacist Rasha Rafat was organizing the fresh medicine and bandages, a sign they expect more bloodshed.
“You heard — the minister said he was going to clear the square,” Rafat said, filling syringes and unpacking boxes of pharmaceuticals. “Because of this, we have no choice but to be prepared for more violence.”