Why it’s so hard to move on from what happened at Rabaa

GlobalPost
An Egyptian woman tries to stop a military bulldozer from hurting a wounded youth during clashes that broke out as Egyptian security forces moved in to disperse supporters of Egypt's deposed president Mohamed Morsi in a huge protest camp near Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque in eastern Cairo on August 14, 2013.
MOHAMMED ABDEL MONEIM/AFP

The streets of Cairo were quiet on Friday, Aug. 14. After they overthrew their leader following 18 days of protest in 2011, Egyptians used to spend a lot of time in the streets. But now most don't dare, since the government passed a protest law in late 2013 that has landed many demonstrators in jail.

Two years ago, Egypt looked very different.

Rabaa el Adaweya Square is a busy Cairo intersection like any other, a place where people get stuck in traffic jams — just a stretch of road, easy to miss if you don’t know what happened here.

Two years ago tens of thousands of people lived together in tents for six weeks here, calling for the reinstatement of ousted Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi, who had been deposed in a popularly backed military coup.

On Aug. 14, 2013, the Egyptian government violently dispersed a mostly peaceful sit-in of around 80,000 protesters. It would end up being the deadliest day in the history of Egypt's republic.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) confirmed at least 817 protesters died at Rabaa that day — the true number is likely much higher. A GlobalPost investigation in 2014 cited independent counts of more than 900 dead. HRW called it “one of the world’s largest killings of demonstrators in a single day in recent history.” Although there were some instances of violent resistance from the protesters, an HRW investigation indicated that the vast majority of those killed were unarmed.

On Friday, the loudest voices commemorating what happened two years ago came from outside Egypt. A Turkish hacker group known as AkinCilar hijacked the Cairo airport's website for a few hours, where they posted a message about the 2013 deaths.

In Egypt, many are doing their best to forget what happened that day.

Supporters of deposed Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi hold a sit-in outside Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque on July 25, 2013 in Cairo.

In the two years since the massacre, the government has continued to crack down on Muslim Brotherhood supporters.  As a result, it's not something that many Egyptians feel comfortable talking about. But on the first anniversary of the killings last year, some told a GlobalPost reporter about the deep pain caused by the events that day.

“I have the same feeling I had after the massacre after a year,” said Nour el-Deen, then 18, a Muslim Brotherhood member who lost more than ten friends and a beloved teacher during the dispersal and the violence that followed. He has since fled with his family to Qatar.

“It was the worst thing in our lives,” he said. “At our age we’re supposed to be with our friends … and when you see your friend killed in that way …” he trailed off.

“It was in Nasr City,” he added. “Our whole lives we lived in Nasr City and in our whole lives we never imagined in the street where your house is or next to your house your friend would die. And by the hand of an Egyptian like you.”

*****

Both state-owned and independent media waged a campaign for almost a year leading up to the Rabaa killings that painted Brotherhood members as “un-Egyptian” terrorists. The day after the massacre, none of the mainstream Egyptian newspapers ran pictures of the bodies.

The campaign began when Morsi issued an unpopular constitutional declaration in November of 2012 that granted him sweeping new powers that resulted in mass protests, which his government violently suppressed, killing dozens of protesters.

There was also a class element at play: The pro-Morsi protesters camping at Rabaa were portrayed in the media as conservative, uneducated people who had come to the capital from the countryside.

Many of those who lived near the protests complained that the demonstrations disrupted daily life. Some of the speeches from the main stage were very divisive, verging on sectarian incitement. When protesters fled the violence of the sit-in dispersal, many residents were not only disinclined to help; they actually heaped derision on the fleeing demonstrators.

Residents told protesters not to put dead bodies on the sidewalk outside their houses, so they were forced to lay them in the street. When journalist Amina Ismail, who reported on the sit-in for McClatchy — an American news agency — tried to take shelter from the shooting in one of the buildings, residents refused to let her in. Finally the doorman allowed her and her colleague to hide in his room, but told them not to make any noise for fear of angering residents.

The level of violence against protesters on the day of the dispersal was not reported in the mainstream Egyptian media. Instead, the protesters were portrayed as armed instigators. The different narratives of what happened that day contribute to a lingering polarization in Egypt.   

For many, the most troubling aspect of the Rabaa massacre was the way it exposed and exacerbated deep divides in Egyptian society, separate from the actions of the military.

Ismail was sickened by the violence. She remembers “tiptoe[ing]” among the dead bodies in the hospital next to the square, trying and failing not to step on the corpses or blood. Someone had turned a fan on in the room, to try to keep the bodies from rotting in the summer heat.

More from GlobalPost: What really happened in Rabaa

Aisha, a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood who left the group in 2011, was also at the sit-in that day, volunteering at the hospital to receive the dead bodies and update lists of those killed. (Her name has been changed for her safety.)

She said she worked “like a machine” — convincing herself that the grisly scene was only “a movie set.” She said the quieter moments amid the carnage haunt her more than the chaos.

Aisha remembers watching a father sitting with his severely injured 18-year-old son.

Resigned to the fact that with the sit-in surrounded by the army and police, he could not get the boy out, the father sat peacefully by his dying son and began to talk.

“It’s as if he knew there was nothing he could do and nothing anyone could do and he thought, 'I will just stay here beside him talking to him.' … He was telling him how he had bought a piece of land in their village and how he was planning to build a nice small home there where his son could live when he got married to the girl he loved,” said Aisha. By then they were out of towels and tissues and the father used his own clothes to mop up his son's blood.

Aisha has since been diagnosed with PTSD.

“I’m not really sure if I’m able to feel anything,” she said on the one-year anniversary of the massacre. The event destroyed her hope in Egypt’s upward trajectory.

Aisha worries about many of the young people who witnessed that day. “The youth, they have nothing but hatred.”

An Egyptian man identifies the body of a family member, a supporter of deposed Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi killed during a violent crackdown by Egyptian Security Forces on pro-Morsi sit-in demonstrations the day before, at the al-Iman Mosque in Nasr City on August 15, 2013 in Cairo,

On the day of the dispersal, some hospitals refused to accept wounded protesters. Dr. Essam Anwar, director of the hospital next to the Rabaa el Adaweya mosque, did treat patients that day. But he understood why others didn't. “They were scared ... if they took the wounded … maybe the security forces would come," he said in an interview a year ago. "The environment was strange and no one knew how the story would end.”

After the massacre, that reaction extended to denial that the slaughter had taken place. When Ismail posted a gruesome picture from the dispersal online with the caption, “No, this is not Syria, this is Egypt,” many people attacked her, justifying the killing, saying that the protesters were armed  “terrorists.”

“That really broke my heart; that was even worse than seeing the dead bodies,” said Ismail.

The night after the dispersal Aisha borrowed different chargers for different mobile phones taken from the bodies of dead protesters and started calling their families. Sometimes she would call the last number dialed and sometimes she would search through the contacts for “my brother” “my father” “my mother.” She made about 30 calls that night. Often she couldn’t even tell the families where the bodies were. Everything, including the phones, was covered in blood.

*****

Today everything looks calm at Rabaa el Adaweya, except for the notable security presence at the two entrances to the mosque.

Many feel that it did not have to happen this way. Had it been dispersed peacefully, there might have been real reforms inside the Muslim Brotherhood, said Aisha: “They were dying politically. The structure of the Brotherhood was splitting”.

Many members, especially the youth, started questioning the leadership. But the violent dispersal of the sit-in and the crackdown that followed “made them all come back as one unit deeply sticking to each other not questioning anything because this is not the time for questioning.” 

Not a single person has been prosecuted for the mass killings of protesters. The Associated Press reported that before the dispersal security officials told their forces not to worry about being held accountable for their actions that day.

These days in Egypt there is less and less room for dissenting voices.

Aisha described something called “the pee-bucket strategy,” an Egyptian parable in which, in response to prisoners' demanding more privileges, prison guards take away their “pee bucket,” at which point the demand becomes the return of the bucket and the original grievances are forgotten.  

“They intentionally minimized our demands to things that were our rights before the revolution, and they’re not even our rights right now,” Aisha said.