CAIRO — Around 6:30 a.m., police armored vehicles rumbled up to the barricades at the edges of the anti-government sit-in where thousands of Islamists had camped out for weeks in a Cairo square.
First came tear gas. Then quickly, police started using machine guns. Every five minutes, student Mahmoud el-Iddrissi remembers, they swept the barricade with bullets. A friend next to him stood to throw a firecracker and immediately fell, shot in his neck and shoulder.
The scene on Aug. 14, 2013, was the start of the biggest massacre in modern Egyptian history, as security forces crushed the sit-in by Islamist supporters of Mohammed Morsi, the elected president who had been removed by the military a month earlier. At least 624 people were killed during 12 hours of mayhem in Cairo's Rabaah el-Adawiyah Square, though rights groups have said the toll may be several hundred higher.
An Associated Press investigation into the day shows that commanders gave security forces virtually carte blanche to use deadly force. Authorities contend police only responded with live ammunition on anyone who fired on them — and eight policemen were killed by gunmen in the square during the assault.
But broad orders given to the security forces, revealed to AP, emphasized crushing resistance. The orders to police were to "act according to the situation and by degrees of escalation," two generals in the Interior Ministry, which is in charge of the police, told the AP. But also, security forces were told to expect protesters to have weapons and were free to swiftly move to eliminate them, they said.
"We explained earlier to them that self-defense is legitimate and they will not be subjected to prosecution later on," one general said.
Steps were taken to ensure that. One of the generals said ammunition was brought to the troops from multiple storehouses to obfuscate its origin. Release logs were covered up, he said, so they could not be used as evidence if any policemen were prosecuted, as had happened previously after the protests against Mubarak.
A few days before the assault, a top Interior Ministry official gave a fiery speech to Central Security troops vowing revenge for policemen killed by Islamic militants. "The blood of our sons in the police will not go in vain," he told them, according to the generals. The two generals spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the planning.
Interviews with more than 20 surviving protesters, security officials and diplomats also uncovered another key factor. Both the military-backed government and Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood, the main force behind the protest, staunchly resisted any concessions that international mediators hoped could avert the disaster. While giving mixed signals to mediators, the military-backed government never wavered from its stance that the sit-in had to be removed, and the Brotherhood and its allies increasingly committed their cause on an all-or-nothing stand in Rabaah.
The sit-in arose in response to rallies by millions of Egyptians demanding the removal of Morsi, the Brotherhood leader who had become Egypt's first freely elected president a year earlier. After his July 3, 2013, ouster by then-army chief Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the sit-in swelled with crowds of families camped out in hundreds of tents. From a stage at the center, prominent clerics and other figures daily told crowds they would hold out until Morsi was restored. A second, smaller sit-in was located across the capital in Nahda Square.
Tensions swelled throughout July. Security officials called Rabaah a threat, saying armed "terrorists" were among the protesters. Independent rights groups have since confirmed that there were a few carrying automatic weapons among the crowds, but that it hardly constituted an "armed camp." Twice, police opened fire on protesters in other parts of the city and killed more than 100.
Within 15 minutes of the start of the dispersal on Aug. 14, casualties started flooding into a clinic set up by protesters in the reception hall of the Rabaah Mosque: guards from the barricades on the sit-in's eastern edge with gaping wounds from heavy caliber guns, said Fatma Yahya Bayad, a surgeon in the clinic.
On the western side of the sit-in, police fired warning shots in the air for the first 20 minutes. Then they came under gunfire from nearby buildings, the two generals said. Lt. Mohammed Gouda, who was circulating with a loudspeaker to tell residents to stay indoors, was the first policeman shot and killed.
A key question about Rabaah is who shot first. A comparison of accounts does not definitively answer that because witnesses' recollection of timing is likely not exact.
The generals said that when Gouda was killed, security forces panicked and let loose with heavy fire.
However, the accounts of Bayad, el-Bittar and el-Iddrissi suggest the first gunshot casualties among protesters — on the far side of the sit-in from Gouda's shooting — had already happened.
Over the next 12 hours mayhem reigned. In Rabaah's reception hall clinic, bodies lined up in rooms as volunteers tried to treat the wounded. "I know I'm going to die, just give me something for the pain," one patient told Bayad. Tear gas barrages forced staff and wounded in the clinic to flee to a hospital, a few dozen yards away
Mohammed Gamal, a 21-year-old on the fifth floor of a building from which protesters were pelting police with stones, recalls seeing a man in the street below fall from a shot. "Another protester tried to crawl to him," Gamal remembered. "The minute he touched the body, he too was shot."
The final toll from Rabaah was 624 dead, according to the government's human rights agency. Gamal Abd-ul-Sattar, a senior figure in the Brotherhood-led anti-coup alliance, told the AP that the group documented names of 2,500 dead, though the highest tallies by independent rights groups are far lower, nearly 1,000.
Egyptian law allows police to use weapons to disperse assemblies that "present a danger to public security." Rights groups, however, say the issue is in proportionality, and courts tend to give wide leeway to police. "Everything today is up to who has the right and power to interpret (the law) and impose his interpretation," said prominent Egyptian rights lawyer Bahy Eddin Hassan.
Notably, the interior minister announced after the dispersal was over that weapons found in the square totaled nine automatic weapons, a pistol, five homemade guns and a large amount of ammunition.
The question remains whether the day could have been averted.
A quartet of mediators stepped in — U.S. State Department official Robert Burns, EU envoy Bernadino Leon, and diplomats from Qatar, an ally of the Brotherhood, and the United Arab Emirates, an ally of Egypt's military. The mediators proposed the government release some Brotherhood leaders, while the protesters would reduce numbers in the squares and tone down rhetoric. International experts would investigate claims of weapons among the protesters and of violence on both sides.
In a prison meeting with the mediators, the Brotherhood's most powerful figure, deputy leader Khairat el-Shater, had been willing to start talks with authorities if a prominent Brotherhood member, Saad el-Katatni, were released from prison to act as a negotiator, Leon told the AP.
But Brotherhood leaders and their allies on the ground in Rabaah adhered to their stance that Morsi must be freed.
"Any dialogue must be with the legitimately elected president," Abd-ul-Sattar said.
And the government gave mixed signals on releasing el-Katatni, first saying charges against him were dropped, then announcing new ones that prevented his release.
In the end, each side's position on any deal was, Leon said: "It is the other side who should start first."