In Cairo this summer, there is scant appetite for anniversaries. The passage of one year since the critical events of the 2013 coup d’état scarcely attracts the public’s attention. There are few official ceremonies or rallies to mark the huge demonstrations on June 30 against Muhammad Mursi, the July 3 military takeover or the July 26 marches summoned by ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi to give himself popular cover in his self-styled fight against terrorism.
The near absence may seem conspicuous, but it should come as no surprise. It is understandable that a regime fixated on restoration would show little eagerness to celebrate its foundational moments. Sisi oversees an alliance of entrenched interests that is defined more by its efforts to recreate an allegedly stable past — by wiping out the contentious political order brought into being after Husni Mubarak’s 2011 ouster — than its attempts to articulate a novel vision for the future. From such a backward-looking standpoint, inaugural events carry hardly any meaning.
But the memory of the bloodiest day during the new regime’s establishment — August 14, 2013 — has been harder to neglect, even for the most enthusiastic cheerleaders of the state’s actions. On that day security forces killed more than 800 protesters, most of them unarmed, in and around Cairo’s Raba‘a al-‘Adawiyya square. Coming toward the end of the “weeks of killing” — the serial fallout of the July coup, including killings of protesters by security forces, sectarian attacks on churches and armed clashes between civilians — Raba‘a was the most horrific episode.
Human Rights Watch has called the event “one of the world’s largest killings of demonstrators in a single day in recent history.” In a scathing report, released on Tuesday after a year-long investigation, the organization accused Egyptian authorities of having a premeditated plan to kill, with Interior Ministry officials anticipating thousands of deaths upon moving into the square. The report implicated top officials — including Sisi, who was defense minister at the time, Interior Minister Muhammad Ibrahim, Special Forces head and commander of the Raba‘a operation Midhat al-Minshawi, intelligence chief Muhammad Farid Tuhami and others — in possible crimes against humanity. Since, to this day, not a single police or army officer has been prosecuted in an Egyptian court for killings of protesters since June 30, 2013, Human Rights Watch called upon UN member states to establish an international commission of inquiry with a mandate to look into all of the human rights violations pursuant to the June 30 events.
In Egypt, the report provoked a spate of kneejerk reactions that hinged on two flimsy defenses: unfounded doubts about Human Rights Watch’s integrity and dubious claims that the state had no choice in doing what it did. The State Information Service began on Tuesday with a statement calling the report biased and describing its authors as disconnected from Egyptian society’s “intellectual and political orientations over the last three years.” Others wrongly accused Human Rights Watch of downplaying the threat posed by weapons belonging to participants in the sit-in. The report did acknowledge that police had found a few firearms; it simply went on to insist that the death toll among the protesters was completely out of proportion to any danger that may have faced the security forces.
With a few notable exceptions, the coverage in the following days parroted the past year’s official line: The Society of Muslim Brothers is a terrorist group; the protesters were carrying guns; the sit-in were a menace to public order; all avenues for peaceful resolution were exhausted; and protesters were given sufficient warning before the security forces moved in to disperse the crowd. Newspapers carried headlines warning of Muslim Brother plots of mayhem on the anniversary, and many ran lengthy stories purporting to expose the ugly truth behind the sit-in.
Sisi loyalists on private television stations were reliably grotesque. One audacious presenter praised the assault on the square as an act of liberation that restored the “state’s prestige” (haybat al-dawla), a phrase the blogger Baheyya calls the “perfect mystification” because it commands citizens both to fear and to revere the state’s authority. For partisans of the status quo, haybat al-dawla has become something of an ideology in its own right. The anchorman went on to propose a state-sponsored celebration to mark the day of the massacre. Less outrageous commentators described Raba‘a as a wound to the Egyptian body politic, vaguely invoking the need for social reconciliation but without assigning clear political responsibility for what happened. Discussion of wrongdoing by the state is largely obscured by a hegemonic narrative in which Raba‘a crowns a state crusade to quell a terrorist campaign that began as early as 2011 when Muslim Brother operatives and allies allegedly stormed Egypt’s prisons. Nor is there much recognition that the sit-in did not have to end the way it did.
The assault on Raba‘a was indeed a climax, but of a different sort. The brutal clearing of the square was the endpoint of a strategy pursued by Egyptian political elites of all stripes, but most fatefully by leaders of the security and intelligence apparatus, in which politics was treated as an existential question governed by zero-sum calculations. That “peaceful alternatives” were never seriously pursued, as former vice president Mohamed ElBaradei stressed in his letter of resignation on the day of the killings, has almost vanished from memory. Finishing the job was made easier by a hysterical media campaign to demonize Muslim Brothers as fifth columnists, creating a toxic climate where the public could consent to mass killing. The post-June 30 public mood, which had been poisoned by a kind of anti-politics that fetishized “stability” and yearned for a reversal of the uncertainty and disorder of the previous three and a half years no matter the cost, could not have been more favorable to the elite’s machinations.
The vigorous attempts by state officials, along with media and public figures, to justify the killings are signs that Raba‘a is an enduring trauma whose memory will not be easily expunged. Raba‘a is in fact the pivotal event of Egyptian politics after the coup. Even though, as Mosaab al-Shamy (one of the foremost photographers of the massacre) observed, the state works hard to scrub the public sphere clean of commemorative icons, Raba‘a is far from invisible. As competing narratives are made to serve rival political agendas, the very persistence of contestation over the facts suggests that the massacre will not die along with its victims.
But a serious public reckoning with what happened last August 14 does not appear imminent. Visibility is one thing, and accountability another entirely. The decision to clear Raba‘a with military force was transmitted down a clear chain of command, but that clarity has barely any significance in the current political atmosphere. With so few convictions of policemen or soldiers for the killing of protesters since 2011 — and despite the Mubarak show trial — a sense of impunity pervades Egypt’s security institutions. The perpetrators of the Raba‘a killings acted with little fear of consequences; they even had assurances from their commanders that “they would not be subjected to prosecution later on.”
Care was taken to guarantee the license to kill. One Interior Ministry general recently admitted to Associated Press reporters that the police took steps to conceal evidence even before the dispersal. Having learned from mistakes in Mubarak-era cover-ups, which allowed the ex-president and his top security officials to be put on trial, this time officers mixed ammunition from multiple storehouses and hid ammunition release logs.
Until there is honest discussion of what happened and genuine accountability, the memory of the Raba‘a massacre will haunt Egypt — as will the possibility of a reprise.