CAIRO — The unmistakable smell of death wafted several blocks away from the Zeinhom morgue on Tuesday, and feral dogs scrounging in the rubbish-strewn lanes lifted their noses into the hot, still air and trotted toward it, until deterred with swift kicks.
Nameless young men, shirts untucked to hide whatever they might have had in their waistbands, did their best to make sure no one approached the building, unless they were bereaved family members there to identify and collect a body, and even many of those had a very hard time of it.
The young men — none would give a name, and even asking risked attracting an attack — were described by the mourners as hired government thugs, a tool used during the Hosni Mubarak era that is making a reappearance as self-appointed security committees filling in amid a shortage of police officers. The men themselves said they were neighborhood watchmen, protecting their community from troublemakers and Egypt from the prying eyes of the news media, especially the international variety.
The military rulers have sought to play down the death toll, and even blame its victims — the great majority of whom were protesters supporting the Muslim Brotherhood. The government’s supporters have made a concerted attempt to hijack the narrative and steer it that way; for instance, they have been attacking the foreign press, especially for continuing to report that more than 1,100 have died in just the past week.
Most of Cairo’s dead have ended up at the Zeinhom morgue, Cairo’s central mortuary and only major forensics facility, a fact that is indisputable simply because of the hundreds of family members filling the choked lanes around it with their wailing and keening. Without a death certificate issued by the authorities, the families cannot get burial permits for one of the city’s overcrowded cemeteries.
Now the nameless men prowl those lanes, even threatening to attack journalists interviewing the bereaved. One came along with a 10-year-old accomplice at his side, who darted around the crowds of mourners making sure they were not talking to outsiders. The young man spoke in reasonable tones, telling an Egyptian journalist working with foreigners, “We are not thugs, but you should not be here; we don’t need you to help them air our dirty laundry.”
The 10-year-old chimed in: “Good thing you left yesterday. We beat that photographer up right after you did.”
Others were slightly less welcoming: “Get out of here or I’ll break you and your car.”
The self-appointed guardians of the morgue precinct were so aggressive on Tuesday that the only way to talk to family members was to meet them later, outside the immediate neighborhood, hiding from view behind a wall.
Hayam Faiz had been waiting for the body of her husband, Mohammad Hamid, 51, for three days. He was killed last Friday in Ramses Square during protests there against the coup that put the Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, out of power. Her husband was not a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, she said, and, like the rest of his family, had even signed a mass petition against Mr. Morsi’s government.
So far she had been able only to see a picture of her husband’s body on a video monitor, awaiting a formal autopsy; until that was complete, she could not get either the body or the death certificate.
Her relatives now are all Brotherhood supporters, she said. “This really was a military coup, a bloody military coup,” she said.
The front door of the Zeinhom morgue had been blocked off, and visitors were obliged to use a filthy back alley called Othman Agha to reach the rear entrance. At a crossroads 100 yards from the morgue’s rear door, a pile of strong bukhoor incense — wood chips soaked in oil — was kept alight on a pillar in the road.
Enterprising Cairenes had set up small businesses on Othman Agha, selling tea, face masks and burial shrouds; one even had a long table for enshrouding the bodies after they came out, identified and with certificates. The entrepreneurs, who seemed to be enjoying some sort of street monopoly, were particularly hostile to photography.
Not a single police officer was to be seen near the morgue.
Three refrigerated container trucks, each 40 feet long, were parked nearby. They were so big that cars and ambulances could barely pass. Journalists who glimpsed inside two of them reported about 40 bodies in each on Monday, but no one got a look on Tuesday. They could each easily have held many times that number; it was unlikely they were empty, as their engines were idling to keep the refrigeration going.
That was for the overflow. There are only 100 refrigerated morgue trays, and inside the morgue itself on Monday, bodies lay in the courtyard, in the hallways and on the floors, according to journalists who got inside for a few minutes. No one had any idea how many dead were there in all, except that it was in the hundreds. Every day hundreds more were being turned over to families.
People who found their loved ones’ bodies piled black plastic bags of ice on them to fend off decomposition in the heat, in the high 90s. Others went around spraying air freshener in a vain attempt to mask the stench.
One of the forensic pathologists working there, Ahmed al-Segeiny, told the Web site of Al Ahram, the state-controlled newspaper, that Zeinhom had become “more of a butcher’s shop than a morgue.” A colleague, Magdy al-Meleigy, also a pathologist, also not adhering to the new narrative, described 90 percent of the victims as dead from gunshot wounds.
Many of the most recent arrivals were the Muslim Brotherhood prisoners, 36 in all, who were killed in what the government called an escape attempt on Sunday, supposedly suffocated by tear gas when the escape was put down.
Mohammad, the brother of one such prisoner, said that his brother’s death certificate read “suffocation” and that he was obliged to sign for it if he wanted the body. “I could see he was not suffocated, his body had been burned completely,” he said. “But it’s in God’s hands now, and we want to lay him to rest.”
Others recounted being forced to acknowledge their relatives as suicides if they wanted their bodies. Three days is a long time for Muslims to wait for burial; they prefer to do it within a day of death.
Leqaa Soweidan, an actress, blamed the Muslim Brotherhood for her brother’s death because he was shot on his balcony watching the group’s demonstration. But when she sought to claim his body from a hospital morgue, she was told to declare him a suicide if she wanted it quickly.
“We were treated well compared to the Muslim Brotherhood families,” said Ahmed al-Kholi, whose brother-in-law was killed. “He didn’t have a beard, and I don’t either, so we didn’t have a problem. They were telling the Brotherhood people to say they committed suicide if they wanted the body.”
One reporter who visited the morgue on Monday said he was told by one of the nameless men that taking pictures of the dead was “haram,” or forbidden by Islam.
“So is not burying the dead,” the reporter said he retorted. Then he challenged his questioner: “Why are you here?”
“I’m looking for my son,” the man replied.
To demonstrate that dubious assertion, he picked up a sheet covering a body and said, “See, there he is; now I’ve found him,” and flippantly put the sheet back down.
Moustafa Kashef and Bryan Denton contributed reporting.