Ammar Shalabi–Writer and Political Analyst
Egypt’s modern history has probably not witnessed an event with such a political, cultural, and social impact like the massacre of the dispersal by the Egyptian army of the peaceful sit-ins in Rabaa and El-Nahda squares on August 14, 2013, thereby surpassing the Citadel Massacre, March 1, 1811, which used to be regarded as the largest operation of political assassination in the modern history of Egypt.
It all started on June 28, 2013, when a number of political and partisan powers called on Egyptians to gather in Rabaa Square, Cairo, to protest the rumored intention by the army to stage a coup d’état against the democratically elected president, Muhammad Morsi. Thousands of Egyptians answered the call and assembled in the square, raising signs in support of the Egyptian president.
On the other hand, the Supreme Council of Armed Forces’ plan was proceeding without change, after months in which they had prepared public opinion, using the media and political campaigning, through what was known as the Tamarod campaign, which was later revealed to have been funded by the UAE. The June 30 Tahrir demonstrations were like a whistle announcing the start of the popular movement in support of the military coup d’état.
The June 30 demonstrations included opponents of President Morsi, supporters of the former regime, blocs of secular currents ideologically opposed to the elected Islamically-oriented president, crowds from the church, public servants, and the entertainment industry, as well as a number of plain-clothed military and police personnel. All this was supported by a massive media presence and a well-advised amplification of facts.
The coup’s statement
The political scene in Egypt seemed to be in a deadlock, with the horizon of a solution and dialogue being totally blocked as the official symbols of religion (Al-Azhar and the Church) and secularism (Al-Dostour Party, Muhammad El-Baradei, and April 6 Movement) threw themselves in the arms of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces, supporting the calls for demonstrations to oust the president and calling the army to rule the country instead.
These moves were finally crowned by the military coup’s statement on July 3, 2013, in which the official military and religious powers joined forces with a number of prominent figures in the secular and security-related political fields. In the final scene, the constitution was suspended and the Supreme Council of Armed Forces took charge of the country, while a “judicial-political” structure was formed (Adli Mansour and Muhammad El-Baradei) to set the stage for the Commander-in-Chief of the military, General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, to assume power.
The military coup’s statement came as a spark for a new start for the Egyptian revolution. Rabaa Square became the symbol of the anti-coup revolution, though there were large-scale demonstrations outside this square as well as big sit-ins in other major squares, most notably El-Nahda Square in Giza, which, along with Rabaa, constituted the two most important destinations for protesters.
The revolution’s icon
The army imposed a complete siege around the two sit-ins, barring the media and photographers across this area. It had tried to disperse the sit-ins several times, killing hundreds in the massacres of the Presidential Guards Club, Bein El-Sarayat, Nasr El-Din, the 2nd Maspero massacre, El-Manassa, etc.
The tight siege and frequent dispersal attempts would almost have yielded the desired result had it not been for the steadfastness of the protesters and the fact that Al-Jazeera satellite channel became involved in the conflict, opening its live broadcasting to the region around the clock. This was a source of determination and a major turning point in the course of events. Halting this broadcast was the first step taken by the army before the utter dispersal of the sit-in.
The protesters passed their days and nights fasting, praying, and chanting slogans, as the whole month of Ramadan was part of the sit-in period. The square served as the starting point for the anti-coup demonstrations in Cairo and the centre that welcomed protesters coming from other governorates. Two nights after Eid El-Fitr, the army and security forces “gifted” them with the tragic massacres of dispersal.
The massacre’s accomplices
During Ramadan and the period of the sit-in, the Egyptian media launched a campaign demonizing the protesters and inciting their killing. To this end, they sent out dozens of rumours targeting their honour, patriotism, and affiliation. They, for example, labelled them as “mercenaries” and “sexual jihadists”, calling on the authorities to rid Egypt and Egyptians of them.
Meanwhile, the pro-coup political blocs also led an aggressive smear campaign. For example, Muhammad El-Baradei (who became the deputy of the coup’s first president Adli Mansour) held various interviews with Western politicians and media figures in a bid to justify the massacres before Rabaa and El-Nahda dispersal. Most notable were his meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and his interview with the US magazine Time in which he said that he had tried hard to convince Western powers of what he described as “the necessity of ousting President Muhammad Morsi”. Besides, he defended the detention of many allies of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the closure of Islamic TV networks following the ouster of Mr. Morsi on Wednesday, 3rd July, by the country’s military generals.
For its part, the April 6 Movement, the largest party among the secular current in Egypt, began to describe the protesters as terrorists and extremists, issuing a statement a few days before the dispersal in which they billed the sit-in as “the alliance of the extremist right”. In an interview with the British newspaper, the Independent, Amal Sharaf, the media officer in the movement, stated that the movement considered this to be an armed sit-in and called on the state to disperse it by force.
The start of the dispersal
In the early morning of August 14, 2013, and without prior notice, volleys of sniper fire began to hit above the heads of thousands of protesters. Meanwhile, the military armoured vehicles were moving slowly towards Rabaa Square, the same taking place simultaneously at El-Nahda Square. In the meantime, there were thugs around the square, tasked with attacking those who were able to survive the massacre and flee the square.
Within hours, Egypt witnessed its worst day since Muhammad Ali’s rule, and the protesters’ blood mingled with the rubble of tents and the blackness of the burning square. Rabaa Square and its counterpart in Giza, El-Nahda, turned into a mass grave that comprised hundreds of dead Egyptians, in addition to other hundreds who were missing, detained, or forcibly disappeared.
The massacre’s outcome
Having dispersed the sit-in in the two squares, the military rule gnashed its teeth and made clear that it was abandoning the former partners, no longer needing their services. As a result, the partners in the military coup began to jump off the ship of political and criminal liability. More notably, El-Baradei resigned, one day after the massacre, from his post as vice president and fled to Austria, settling there.
Moreover, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar announced that his institution had no prior knowledge of the time of the dispersal and that Al-Azhar “does not approve, in principle, the shedding of blood, and calls on all sides to exercise self-restraint”. This language denotes a withdrawal more than a clear denunciation of the massacre. For its part, Egypt’s Church supported the dispersal and called it a historic day in the life of Egyptians.
Internationally, there was a muted reaction, except for personal denunciations of the massacre. Such a response seemed like intentional disregard for the incident and approval of the military overthrow of the new Egyptian leadership that was born out of the first democratic elections after the January 25th Revolution.
The anti-coup protests continued in various squares and dozens of demonstrations occurred in Cairo and other governorates. Protesters tried to embark upon open-ended sit-ins in other squares, but they all ended up with other massacres, most notably at Mustafa Mahmoud Square and Abbasiyya Square in Cairo.
The Awareness for Research and Development institution (AWRAD) considers an event like Rabaa sit-in, one of the remarkable icons of the Egyptian revolution and the Arab Spring and a turning point in its journey, deserves to be given attention, documented, and thoroughly studied by researchers in all fields, along with its organizers, the managers of its different committees, and the different categories of its participants. They should also chronicle every day and every hour, and record the key events of the demonstrations as well as the humane and civilizational aspects, the cultural and revolutionary activities, the visiting delegates, the domestic and international reactions, and the most significant results produced by this event.
The AWRAD institution also believes that the scientific documentation of this sit-in and similar incidents occurring within the area of expression in the countries of the Arab Spring is instrumental to, and necessary for, preserving the legacy of the Ummah (Islamic community) and protecting the memory of its pivotal moments and history from loss, oblivion, or distortion.