One year on: remembering the Rabaa massacre

AP Photo/Manu Brabo

AP Photo/Manu Brabo

It was a year today that a massacre took place outside Cairo’s Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque. At least 817 people were killed as Egyptian security forces cleared the area of Muslim Brotherhood supporters who had occupied the square in front of the mosque for weeks. Our correspondent watched the coup that deposed Mohamed Morsi unfold and reported on a country where doublespeak and demonisation of the enemy had become the order of the day. Here’s a short extract from the article, which featured in issue #13 of Delayed Gratification, available from the DG shop.

On 14th August the crackdown shifted into top gear. Security forces were dispatched to the two major pro-Morsi demonstrations which had developed on opposite sides of the capital. The encampment outside Cairo University was cleared with relative ease, but at Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque things were not so simple. Over the course of several hours, police marksmen supported by troops unleashed a previously unseen level of brute force in which several hundred Islamist protesters lost their lives.

Many months down the line, my notebook retains the power to resurrect a succession of grim snapshots from that day. The rows of bodies which grew longer and longer by the hour; the doctors tending to shocking head wounds, the young girl in pink trousers tottering between the heads of corpses in the mosque. Human Rights Watch described 14th August as “the most serious incident of mass unlawful killings in modern Egyptian history.” Yet the horror of that day has been assiduously whitewashed by the generals, and many opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood have found ways to justify what took place as an unpleasant but necessary intervention by the state.

“There has been an attempt, which unfortunately has been successful, to silence any opposing viewpoints,” says Mohamad el-Masry, a professor of journalism at the American University of Cairo. This attempt to silence the opposition began immediately after the toppling of Morsi. After whisking the president away into detention, the security services apprehended all the members of his inner team and drew up a list of hundreds of other leading Islamists to be rounded up and detained. All of the main Islamist television channels were swiftly closed down, silencing the most strident opposition voices.

Government-run newspapers were predictably gung-ho in their calls to deal with the Brotherhood, but privately-owned publications became equally on-message. Clashes with the police, which a year before might have been portrayed as political activism, were instead described in the newspapers as “Brotherhood terrorism”. Jingoistic little tags began appearing on the screens of the private television stations with slogans such as “War on Terrorism”, to convince the masses they were involved in a Manichean battle against evil.

Living in Egypt, one can sometimes be hard pressed to find any acknowledgement – certainly on an official level – that an atrocity took place on 14th August. Part of the explanation lies with the behaviour of Islamist leaders. Following the toppling of Morsi, many issued blood-curdling speeches vowing revenge against liberals, Christians and anyone else they deemed responsible. Fundamentalists who attacked churches in central Egypt following the massacre served only to exacerbate the suspicions of anti-Islamists – as did the residual memory of the Brotherhood’s militant past. “The Muslim Brotherhood has been a terrorist organisation since they were founded,” says Mohamed Osman, a man who worked on the presidential campaign of Mubarak-era foreign minister Amr Moussa. “The majority of people in Egypt believe that what el-Sisi did was a must.”

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