A man grieves at a makeshift hospital in Cairo after the Egyptian military's… (Mahmoud Khaled / AFP/Getty…)
CAIRO — With its people more polarized than ever and the military once again struggling to impose calm, Egypt's downward spiral appears to have no bottom.
At least 51 people were killed Monday when army and police forces opened fire on a sit-in during morning prayers. The protesters outside Republican Guard headquarters said they were peacefully calling for the release of the Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, whom the military deposed last week. The army said it responded to a "terror group" firing weapons and hurling Molotov cocktails.
Stunned but not deterred by the violence, the Islamists quickly called for a national uprising.
PHOTOS: Turmoil in Egypt
"We are very patient. We Egyptians built the pyramids," said Essam Erian, deputy head of the Muslim Brotherhood's political wing. "Do you know how many people died building the pyramids? How many died digging the Suez Canal?"
The two sides’ differing views of the violence were a chilling suggestion of what Egypt may yet endure. The military crackdown has been fierce and swift. But the army so far has been unable to patch together a coalition government to replace Morsi and the Brotherhood. Without it, critics say, the army resorted to excessive force — as it did two years ago when it stepped in after the fall of President Hosni Mubarak.
The army's actions early Monday may also have nudged two Islamic adversaries — the Brotherhood and the ultraconservative Salafist Nour Party — closer together.
Nour, which won 25% of the vote in last year's parliamentary elections, plays a pivotal role. It sided against the Brotherhood last week and joined a coalition of secular and religious parties in favor of ousting Morsi. But it balked at the naming of prominent secularist Mohamed ElBaradei as prime minister Saturday.
Facing increasing pressure from the Islamist camp after the killings, Nour withdrew from the negotiations on forming an interim government. The move is likely to consolidate Islamist forces and damage efforts to stabilize the country.
The military is dealing "with human beings, not animals, so how can you target people like that?" said Nour spokesman Nader Bakar. "This is something that cannot be justified.... Where is the military's self-control and restraint?"
The army was unbowed. It was determined to convince Egyptians that its takeover and removal of Morsi, the country's first freely elected president, was necessary to stem political chaos and economic turmoil. It said it was forced to act because of a deepening threat from radicals.
"The armed forces always deal with issues very wisely, but there is certainly also a limit to patience," said Ahmed Ali, the military spokesman.
The army increasingly has used the term "terrorism" to describe not only attacks by militants, but also in reference to clashes between pro- and anti-Morsi demonstrators. The term to many Egyptians is becoming a code word for Islamists.
"The reports say that the army assaulted them while they were praying, but of course this isn't true," said Ibrahim Allaga, a 23-year-old who runs a T-shirt business. He was one of the anti-Morsi demonstrators in Cairo's Tahrir Square on Monday. "This has never happened in Egyptian history, that the army would attack people while they pray. This is a rumor started by terrorist groups to get the support of the Egyptian people."
In Washington, the Obama administration ruled out, at least for now, cutting off $1.5 billion in annual aid to Egypt despite a federal law that requires halting assistance to countries that have overthrown elected governments with military coups.
Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, told reporters that a quick cutoff of aid would be "not in the best interests of the United States." Officials suggested that using the threat of a cutoff to push the Egyptian military and other political players toward reconciliation would be more effective than imposing a punishment that could alienate the generals.
Witnesses said demonstrators near the Republican Guard headquarters, where Morsi is believed to be in detention, fled in the early-morning darkness as soldiers and security forces fired tear gas, bullets and buckshot. The dead and wounded were ferried away by motorcycles, ambulances and in the arms of relatives.
"While we prayed, they shot us," said Fatma Alzomor, who wailed near the Rabaa al Adawiya mosque, about two miles away. "Witness, free world, what is happening. We are being sprayed with blood. You must hear me."
In the clamor, husbands reached for wives and mothers for children.
"We were praying at 3:30 a.m. when we were surprised by gunfire and tear gas all around us," said Mahmoud Mohamed, a lawyer, who was shot in the arm. "We had women and children with us. The shooting went on for a long time. They didn't give us a chance to retreat. They met us from every direction."