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Interview: VOA Cairo Correspondent Elizabeth Arrott On Government Crackdown

The aftermath after security forces attacked the pro-Morsi sit-in strike and supporters of deposed Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi at Nahda Square in Cairo on August 14.
The aftermath after security forces attacked the pro-Morsi sit-in strike and supporters of deposed Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi at Nahda Square in Cairo on August 14.
Egyptian security and police forces have launched a violent crackdown on supporters of ousted President Muhammad Morsi, who have been carrying out a mass sit-in for weeks on the streets of Cairo.

RFE/RL's Heather Maher spoke by phone with Voice of America Cairo correspondent Elizabeth Arrott, who has been reporting from the scene.

RFE/RL: The Egyptian Health Ministry says 149 people have been killed today, while the Muslim Brotherhood says the toll is more than 2,000. Which estimate is closer to the truth?

Elizabeth Arrott:
It's very, very difficult to come to terms with the numbers at this point -- it's still early hours. And from past experience, we see wildly divergent accounts of how many people have been injured or killed. The government tends to underplay the numbers, the Muslim Brotherhood overplays them.

Again, [it's] too early but certainly [there] has been some witnesses from a human rights group that has gone into a makeshift morgue and other accounts, photographs -- certainly scores of people have been killed in today's violence.

RFE/RL: Did security forces warn the sit-in protesters before they began firing on them?

There had been warnings from the government for weeks and they had intensified over the last few days. Normally, these attacks come at dawn so when it did start, at about 7 a.m., people had thought that they had passed the dangerous time. So I think many people were taken unawares.

In some places the police had shouted out that they were setting up exits but there was also -- there's no video evidence of just what appears to be indiscriminate firing into the camps by police forces and security forces.

RFE/RL: It's 6 p.m. there in Cairo. Are security forces still attacking the pro-Morsi supporters?

Yes. We're about an hour away from curfew being imposed but there are still ongoing clashes, confrontations between protesters and security forces, and then on top of that -- there are people -- once [security forces] dispersed the crowd, many of them just went to other neighborhoods and started building sort of rallying points.

So what has happened is what had been a contained situation has now spread across the city and throughout the day we've been hearing gunfire at various points throughout the city.

RFE/RL: So it doesn't appear that the pro-Morsi supporters are leaving, they're just dispersing to other areas?

Yes. There is still some action taking place in Rabaa al-Adawiya – the mosque in eastern Cairo which was the [site of the] main sit-in. They had cleared Nahda [Square] near Cairo University by mid-morning, but again, there were all these thousands of people and while some remain at Rabaa al-Adawiya, the people who have left have just taken up the fight at different places and we're seeing standoffs between military and supporters under bridges as well as local clashes. It's also spread beyond Cairo, in Alexandria, Suez, Port Said -- we're seeing violence now in upper Egypt as well.

RFE/RL: Are the protests outside Cairo a response to the crackdown or were they happening before the security services attacked at dawn?

There had been -- especially in Alexandria -- there had been some smaller sit-ins, but this was definitely a response to the crackdown this morning.

RFE/RL: You were involved in a frightening incident earlier today, what was that like?

We had been trying one approach into the Rabaa camp and had been going on a street around to another entrance where we also usually had been going into. We passed, we'd been going past a big line of security and we had a camera in the front car. The police surrounded us. They were very rough with Japhet Weeks, who's our video journalist, and beat and kicked him, and they detained us but they did release us without charge.

But they did make us delete -- they knew that we were journalists -- we had shown them our passes and everything. They were very aggressive and they did make us delete most of the footage that he had shot. And they broke the camera.

RFE/RL: Have you heard anything from the government in terms of an official statement or plans to make a statement?

Already we've had officials blaming the Muslim Brotherhood for the violence today. They have also declared a state of emergency and now this curfew that will be going into effect. What effect that will have on the street violence overnight is very hard to tell.

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