Three years ago, on August 14, 2013, Egyptian security forces carried out what may be the largest massacre of protesters in world history. In just over a few hours, Egyptian police shot dead hundreds of unarmed civilian activists who had gathered at Rabaa Al-Adawiya Square to demonstrate against the nation’s July, 3, 2013 military coup.
The coup ousted Egypt’s first-ever democratically elected president, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi, just one year into his first term in office. According to Human Rights Watch, anti-coup protesters, who had been protesting daily for more than six weeks immediately following the coup, were “overwhelmingly peaceful.”
One does not have to look far for evidence of this peacefulness—the protests were televised live for more than a month, with media professionals enjoying-twenty four hour access to the square. Indeed, had protesters been violent, there would have been significant causalities among police during the assault and protesters would not have succumbed so easily to state forces.
While the Egyptian government claimed that Rabaa Square had been dominated by “heavy weapons,” only fifteen handguns were seized from the protest site, which, during peak hours, featured more than 100,000 protesters. In the hours and days that followed the massacre, videos emerged of Egyptian police shooting clearly unarmed men at point blank range. Police also set a field hospital ablaze, burning people alive and destroying evidence. Egyptian authorities systematically sought to manipulate casualty figures, forcing families to accept death certificates stating that the victims had died of “natural causes.”
Human Rights Watch’s report, All According to Plan, which was based on one-year of investigative research and primary evidence, concluded that Egyptian police were shooting to kill rather than injure or apprehend. It also stated that the premeditated violence was ordered at the highest levels of government, reaching all the way to current President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, who won 97 percent of the vote in a sham 2014 presidential election.
At the time, the Egyptian government worked hard to cover its tracks by engaging in victim blaming, and repeatedly suggesting that police had exercised maximum “self-restraint.” Echoing the government’s propaganda, Egyptian media celebrated the massacre, describing police officers as heroes and portraying them as victims. Two Egyptian television news networks even played heroic Hollywood music—from Rocky and Pirates of the Caribbean—as the backdrop to their coverage of the violent dispersal.
Muslim and Christian religious authorities close to the coup government tacitly supported the massacres, as did many movie stars and singers. Those who opposed the massacre—and many Egyptians did, of course—were systematically silenced in Egypt’s newly minted authoritarian environment. Over the past three years, openly doubting the Egyptian government’s narrative about the Rabaa massacre has been considered criminal, akin to sympathizing with terrorists
As Shadi Hamid has written, the Rabaa massacre was a time when many Egyptians seemed to lose their humanity. It was one thing to disagree with the Muslim Brotherhood and their supporters—and even support their forced removal from political life—but it was another thing entirely to support the slaughter of unarmed people, including women and children.
In one sense, the Rabaa massacre represented the day on which Egyptian politics died. It was the culmination of a military takeover involving unprecedented repression, the solidification of “deep state” power, and the elimination of all forms of serious political opposition. Perhaps more than anything else, the massacre exemplified the military government’s eliminationist strategy. As a result of this policy, in today’s Egypt, there are no checks and balances, no accountability, and no competition.
Unsurprisingly, there have been no meaningful investigations into or arrests for the state-sponsored violence at Rabaa. On the contrary, Egypt erected a statue honoring police for their service, while Sisi announced he would change the name of Rabaa Square to honor Egypt’s former Public Prosecutor, Hisham Barakat.
Given the terrible loss of life and lack of accountability, it would be immoral to forget about the Rabaa massacre. It would also be a political mistake to assume the incident was a simple historical occurrence. Momentous political events—particularly those that cause deep social fissures—have a way of reproducing themselves as part of the politics of memory.
We may never again hear from Mohamed Morsi or any of the senior Brotherhood leaders currently on death row. But a generation of Egyptians, angry at how their friends and family members have been killed, arrested, and tortured, and resentful about how they have been treated by an oppressive military dictatorship, are unlikely to allow the Rabaa massacre to fade quietly into the night.
At some point—maybe not now, and maybe not in the very near future—there is likely to be another democratic opening in Egypt. In that moment, the Rabaa massacre could be the launching point for authentic justice in a new system, one based on the basic democratic principles of accountability and fairness, and which could, potentially, resurrect Egyptian politics from the dead.