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Three years on, wounds of Egypt's deadly sit-in dispersals linger

Many protesters who had participated in the Rabaa al-Adawiya Square sit-in continue to suffer emotionally and physically following the violent dispersal by the police on July 3, 2013.

“On this day three years ago, my 21-year-old sister was murdered in cold blood. I knew then that I no longer belong here.”

This bitter comment was published Aug. 14 by IT specialist B. Ibrahim, 28, in a private posting on social media shown to Al-Monitor. Ibrahim was referring to the day in 2013 when 817 protesters were brutally killed by security forces in a bloody dispersal of their encampment in Rabaa al-Adawiya Square in the northeast Cairo suburb of Nasr City.

The Rabaa protesters — mostly Islamist supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi — had camped out at the square after the removal of Egypt’s first democratically elected president from power by street protests backed by the military on July 3, 2013. The sit-in demanding “a return to legitimacy” lasted more than five weeks during which the pro-Morsi demonstrators transformed the area around the mosque into a tent city.

Braving the scorching summer heat and with the majority of protesters observing a dawn-to-dusk Ramadan fast, the Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers had taken turns to address the crowd from a makeshift stage. Many of them hailed from provinces outside Cairo and were convinced that they were fighting “a jihad in defense of Islam.” Some of those who took to the podium made fiery speeches and others incited violence against the coup leaders. “Morsi wanted Egypt to be the best country in the region but [Abdel Fattah al-] Sisi and his corrupt police officers took him down,” Islamic cleric Safwat Hegazy said in a speech from the Rabaa platform. Hegazy was arrested one week after the Rabaa dispersal and has since languished in prison along with tens of thousands of other Muslim Brotherhood supporters, detained in the weeks after Morsi’s overthrow.

Despite the loss of hundreds of lives in what has been described by rights groups as “the worst mass unlawful killings in the country’s contemporary history,” few in Egypt are willing to acknowledge that what happened during the Rabaa dispersal was “a massacre.” Many of Egypt’s so-called liberals who had feared the Islamist regime that rose to power in June 2012 argue that the Muslim Brotherhood — designated a terrorist organization by the authorities who replaced the deposed Islamist president — was “a fascist group that would have driven Egypt to ruins.” They dismiss Western media reports equating the violent dispersal of the Rabaa pro-Morsi sit-in with the 1989 armed suppression of a pro-democracy movement at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, and insist that security forces had allowed the protesters safe passage out of the square. Some reiterate complaints by residents in the area that the protesters had blocked off the streets leading to the square, disrupting traffic and making life difficult for the locals. Citing local media reports that the protesters had used “weapons” against the police, others vengefully declared that the Islamist protesters had gotten what they deserved.

“The use of excessive force is justified against those who carry weapons against the police or army,” Ahmed Maarouf, a former banker and supporter of the current regime, told Al-Monitor.

Eight police officers were killed in the Rabaa dispersal. Despite reports — some from reliable sources — that there was a cache of arms at the Rabaa sit-in, I remember clearly that when I had gone to check out the “terrorist encampment” July 23, I had only seen some protesters wielding wooden clubs at the entrance into the square. For a group whose aim was to avert any attempt by the police to storm their sit-in, they had looked woefully unprepared.

Photographer Eman Helal, who was at the scene on the day of the dispersal, told Al-Monitor that she saw women breaking stones for the men on the front lines to pelt security forces with. She recalled that her shirt was splattered with the blood of a wounded protester who had been shot at by police.

A journalist who was with Sky News cameraman Mick Deane when the latter was shot and killed by security forces recounted what he witnessed in those few “hellish” hours at Rabaa. He told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “When we arrived there at 6:30 a.m., it looked like the clashes had started at least an hour earlier. Police were not allowing any journalists in and we could hear the sound of gunfire from a distance as we approached. After being turned away by police at a checkpoint, we had no option but to make our way over the rooftops of nearby buildings from where we jumped into the square below. We could hear the loud bursts of gunfire that sounded like they were coming from every direction. We miraculously made our way safely to the field hospital inside the mosque. It was already filled with scores of wounded protesters who were being tended to by volunteer doctors. Most appeared to have been shot in the head or chest. Their moans of agony still ring in my ears to this day. The bodies of the dead were carried into an adjacent 'morgue' where corpses were fast piling up. The stench of raw blood filled the air. Already, there were too many bodies there for us to count.

"We decided to venture outside to take more pictures and were immediately met with a fresh round of bullets. It was terrifying to be in the open space without cover. Bending low, we ran as fast as we could from one tent to the other, finally seeking shelter in a narrow corridor between the stage and the staircase of the mosque. We felt safer there than in the open space. After about 20 minutes, Mick decided to go out again for more photographs. It was only a matter of minutes before he came running back, shouting that he’d been shot. He was still on his feet, however, so we assumed that his injury wasn’t serious. We rushed back to the field hospital where a doctor told us that the bullet had hit him in the chest, narrowly missing his heart. He advised us to take Mick — who was still conscious — to a hospital in Nasr City. We tried to get out but were told by a group of protesters who were sheltering behind sand piles that security forces were shooting randomly and that anyone trying to exit the square would almost certainly get hit. They tried to help us, raising water bottles to deflect attention from us as we ran under a shower of bullets. At one point we dropped Mick to the ground, dragging him by the feet until we reached the exit. The ordeal lasted several minutes. I could see that his condition had worsened; he was now shivering and his voice was barely audible. Undoubtedly the security forces were mercilessly trying to wipe out everyone there. When we got to Nasr City Hospital minutes later, it was too late. Mick died shortly after being whisked into the emergency room.“

Rokaya, another journalist who was at Rabaa and who requested that she be mentioned by her first name only, claimed she saw security forces pour gasoline to set the field hospital on fire. “Not everyone there was dead. There were several wounded protesters who were too weak to get out,” she told Al-Monitor.

The Rabaa dispersal signaled the start of the ongoing crackdown on dissent that has since seen tens of thousands of Muslim Brotherhood leaders and supporters detained and tried in what rights groups have described as “kangaroo courts.” Three years on, many are still mourning the loss of their loved ones. Many more, however, remain oblivious to their suffering.

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