Five years ago on Monday, August 14, 2013, one of the largest killings of demonstrators in a single day in recent history took place in Egypt. The event is known as the Rabaa massacre. Led by now President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Egyptian security forces raided two camps occupied by supporters of former President Mohamed Morsi. The camps were located at al-Nahda and Rabaa al-Adawiya squares in Cairo. Morsi, who was Egypt’s first democratically-elected president, had been ousted by a military coup d’état (also led by Sisi) several weeks earlier. In only a few hours, more than 800 protesters gathered in the two squares were shot dead by Egyptian forces. Over 3,500 were injured.
In the years since those horrific events, the Egyptian government has continued to prosecute and persecute the Muslim Brotherhood. Only a few days before the massacre’s five-year anniversary, Egyptian police arrested thirteeen alleged members of the organization on terror charges. The men are accused of attempting to incite protests commemorating the events at Rabaa. Former Rabaa protesters and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood continue to be imprisoned and tried for their participation in the demonstrations. Those injured or killed also continue to be denied justice. In July, Egypt’s Parliament approved a draft law exonerating senior army officers for human rights offenses committed between July 3, 2013 and January 10, 2016.
By stifling dissent and immunizing officials from accountability for their crimes, Sisi and his regime remain fervent in suppressing commemoration of the bloodshed. In a gut-wrenching call for justice published in the Washington Post, Mohamed Soltan, a dual Egyptian-American citizen who was at Rabaa and was subsequently arrested and detained for almost 24 months by Egyptian authorities, recounts that day’s fateful events. In his retelling, Sultan paints a vivid picture of his time in prison, and the ways he is continuing to cope with the pain and sorrow of those tragic events.
Months later, when I was in prison, I happened to make eye contact with a security service officer who escorted me from my cell to a hearing in the one of many sham trials conducted in the aftermath of the massacre. He looked at me as if we had crossed paths before. Only later did I realize that it was the same officer I had locked eyes with when I was leaving the square.
It was clear to me that the guilt had made him lose sleep and weight; the prayer beads that nestled in his shaking hands and the bags under his eyes said it all. He was burdened by the innocent lives he had taken, and it haunted him. I smiled, because I didn’t know how else to react to the irony of sharing trauma with someone who had carried out the terror against his fellow countrymen. He put his head down just as I had on my way out of Rabaa. He looked helpless and afraid. I could see how heavy the burden was. I tried not to be bitter about the fact that I went back to prison as he went home to his family that day.