CAIRO — Nour was 17 when he heard about the death of his teacher and nine friends in the span of few hours. He was at Rabia al-Adawiya Square on Aug. 14, 2013. “Seeing brains pouring out of people’s heads had become the norm for us that day,” he said. His account of the day is as disjointed as it is gory. It was like “a sea of blood. We stepped on the body parts of dead people.”
More than 1,000 were killed that day during simultaneous crackdowns on two sit-ins supporting ousted president Mohammed Morsi. At least 817 were killed in the eastern Cairo encampment of Rabia Square, according to a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report that described it as “one of the world’s largest killings of demonstrators in a single day in recent history.”
“We used to hear the buzzing sound [of bullets] around us, worse than any video game or action film,” Nour said.
Saved on his phone are pictures of his friends and his mentor Ahmed Ammar dying. The name also adorns a poster over his bed. According to testimonies collected by HRW, Ammar was killed by four bullets to the chest.
The high school student wants to make sure he doesn’t forget that day.
Before he left for Doha with his family in January, he was a regular at street marches. A four-fingered hand — Rabia is the name of a historical, revered woman, but also means four — became the symbol of the massacre. It was flashed in victims’ funerals in August and quickly became a logo carried alongside Morsi’s posters.
“In the Rabia sit-in, the main demand was the return of legitimacy and the reinstatement of Morsi. After the dispersal, this demand remained for a while, but then the blood increased,” said 18-year-old Ahmed, who remains active in street demonstrations that have seen a dip in numbers over the past months. He agrees with some protest leaders that Morsi’s name should be avoided to attract sympathizers.
There are different viewpoints about political demands, but blood is the one goal everyone is united behind, he explained.
Neither Nour nor Ahmed has an idea of how justice can be achieved. A regime change is key in their loosely constructed scenarios of retribution. “The new regime has to be Islamist,” Ahmed said. Prosecuting or investigating those deemed responsible for the crackdown would require their removal from office.
The HRW report argues that Rabia wasn’t a mere case of disproportionate and indiscriminate force, but a planned operation against political opponents, ordered and approved by the current president and then-Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim among other officials. Ibrahim said in an Aug. 31 interview the ministry anticipated about 2,000 fatalities.
Both men, especially Sisi, are regarded by many as heroes who saved Egypt from the Muslim Brotherhood.
A political resolution was needed first before justice could be achieved, argued Karim Ennarah, a researcher of transitional justice and security sector reform who documented the Rabia massacre and the communal fighting before it.
“We are not post- anything. We are not in a democratic transition. We live in a conflict. … We need political resolution to end the conflict,” he said.
The intertwining of political demands with calls for retribution, however, impedes the momentum that a massacre of this magnitude could have gathered, especially among part of Morsi’s opposition.
Noha, a 34-year-old designer, lost her 32-year-old brother and 23-year-old cousin. Both were gunned down in Rabia on Aug. 14. They were critics of Morsi, but against the military coup that ousted him and the deadly crackdowns on his supporters that preceded Aug. 14. Her brother was against the sectarian discourse promoted in Rabia. Her family refused to give the Muslim Brotherhood permission to use their pictures in banners commemorating victims. She refuses to join any of the marches despite expressing respect for protesters’ courage.
“I won’t go carry Morsi’s picture,” she said.
She spent many sleepless nights thinking of the blank box in her brother’s death certificate. Morgue employees who played pro-army songs on loop as families processed the bodies of their loved ones refused to write the cause of death.
She wants at least to know the names of the killers, but like others she has no confidence in the judicial system, a sentiment echoed by rights groups who see the judiciary and the prosecution as largely biased and politicized.
“People ask me if I had done the legal work. Who am I going to ask for justice from? The people who have killed and continue to kill?” she said.
In an interview last week, Interior Ministry spokesman Hany Abdel Latif said Aug. 14 will commemorate 114 policemen killed “in their battle against the terrorism of the Muslim Brotherhood in the dispersal of the Rabia and Nahda sit-ins.” He said 64 policemen were killed on that day. An earlier forensic report said only eight officers were killed in Rabia. The rest were killed in retaliatory attacks by Morsi supporters on 180 police buildings and 22 churches across the country.
HRW alleges that police officers were given guarantees they would not be prosecuted and were later awarded with bonuses. A monument for their efforts was erected at the square.
The government has dismissed the HRW report as “biased and negative.” It said that it ignored that an officer was the first to die on Aug. 14 — an issue addressed in the report.
Member of the Anti-coup Alliance Hamza Sarawy notes a “horrifying” transformation in ideology among youth languishing in prison. The Islamic State doesn’t have to come to Egypt, its ideology will find rife soil here, he said.
As the Rabia anniversary approached, the government warned of anticipated terrorist attacks, signaling a spate of ongoing violence that precludes any political solutions. Data collated by Ennarah indicate that 207 police personnel were killed in the second half of 2013, as opposed to 45 in the first half, and at least 122 were killed in 2014. On the other side, activists ridicule political initiatives calling for reconciliation as the death toll from subsequent clashes and crackdowns exceed 3,000, according to Wikithawra.
The violence hasn’t abated since Aug. 14, 2013, although its frequency and impact fluctuated from massive explosions damaging security directorates to ineffective IEDs. Extremist groups have occasionally referred to the treatment of pro-Morsi supporters by the police as justification for their targeting of security forces.
Individuals interviewed for this report said they understand why others are resorting to violence although they wouldn’t partake in such actions.
“If I were a different person I’d find a terrorist organization to join,” Noha said. Her only vindication would be the prosecution and execution of Sisi and Ibrahim.
The HRW report called for the UN to investigate what’s likely to be a crime against humanity. “The message sent so far is that Egypt can get away with mass murder. That is a disastrous message to try to build a genuine democracy,” said Kenneth Roth, HRW executive director. Justice is needed “for the sake of victims of yesterday and of possibly tomorrow.”