Voices in Rabaa, one year ago in Cairo

H.A. Hellyer

By : H.A. Hellyer

Cairo had been on edge. I think the whole country was. It seems almost moot now to repeat, ad nauseum, that the country was deeply polarized, between a large majority and a substantial minority. Far too often, political actors will use claims to popularity to justify actions and acts that can never be justified – but they go ahead and justify them anyway. Societies are fortunate when those acts only affect them or their generation – but in Egyptian society, that’s rarely the case.

I remember walking into the sit-in, about a month after it had been set up around the mosque. People forget that it was set up prior to the June 30th protests in 2013, rather than as a response to the July 3rd military takeover. We saw shades of that sit-in in the audience that then President Mursi addressed in his last speech before those protests – a speech that lasted more than two and half hours, and which said exceedingly little that would avert or diminish the June 30th protests. The reaction of that gathering in the auditorium was electrifying – and foreboding, perhaps, of what was to come.

I’ve been in a few Egyptian sit-ins and protests. Invariably, they’re somewhat chaotic. They might manage to coalesce around several key demands – but on many an occasion, they’ll include a big variety of different voices. Rabaa was similar to that – but also different. The Muslim Brotherhood controlled the entrances to Rabaa – and, critically, the stage was controlled by the Brotherhood as well. That’s not to say that every speaker on the microphone was a member of the Brotherhood – but certainly, the organization controlled Rabaa’s institutions. When satellite channels were broadcasting the speeches on the Rabaa stage, which they did every day for hours during July and August, they were broadcasting certain types of permissible discourse. I remember going there once in late July, and seeing Safwat Hegazy, for example, a radical Islamist preacher on stage – and wondering, why would the Brotherhood be so foolish as to allow the likes of him to speak, when his speeches would then characterize the nature of the sit-in? When I put that question to a Brotherhood member and activist later on, he said: “we wanted to respect freedom of speech.” Quite.

Demonizing the ‘other’

That incitement, vitriol and sectarianism reached abominable levels. That kind of discourse was specific, particular and unique, perhaps – but despicable diatribes aimed at dehumanizing and demonizing one’s political opponents was hardly to be found only in Rabaa. On the contrary: brutalizing and debasing the ‘other’ in venomous speech could be found from many an opponent of the Brotherhood at the same time the Rabaa stage was in full swing.

A plethora of other rights organizations have weighed in on what happened that day – and the gaping wound remains

H.A. Hellyer

I remember thinking at the time – this kind of speech has consequences. Much of the anti-Islamist opposition on the airwaves insisted that Rabaa was a terrorist stronghold in a Cairene district – and characterized those therein as such. It raised two questions – if that characterization was correct, then how were the authorities permitting and allowing the free entrance and exit of Egyptian citizens into its immediate area? If it was a terrorist stronghold, then why didn’t the police or the military close off Rabaa, restricting access to the vicinity? How were cars and trucks able to enter, for example, with supplies and the like? Indeed, even if was not a terrorist stronghold, surely the reports from different human rights activists and organizations as to the abuse of individuals within the sit-in would justify some sort of limitation? After all, the authorities restricted access to Tahrir Square many times over the previous years for far less.

But that wasn’t the most worrying consequence I considered. For at some point, it was clear the sit-in would end. This stings supporters of the Anti-Coup Alliance and its aims, but the truth is that a multitude of opinion polls and surveys from the likes of Gallup and others made it clear: the military and its establishment remained the most popular institution in the country by far. That was a lesson that the non-Brotherhood revolutionary camp took a long time to recognize and realize – believing, almost facetiously, that ‘the masses’ were always with the revolution. If only. When one couples that support for the military establishment on the one hand, and the growing unpopularity of the Brotherhood and of political parties in general on the other, one thing seemed clear. Not only would the sit-in eventually end – but the authorities would be able to count on a critical mass of the population to support it.

As the incendiary discourse of the anti-Brotherhood increased, perhaps in a symbiotic relationship with the discourse of the Islamist camp or not, one had to wonder – when the end finally took place, how would it end? How ugly would it be? How would those ordered to disperse the sit-in by force carry out their orders? How would they engage? How would they view those whom they opposed politically (as it was certain the entire police force did), and had been subjected to a regular diet of combustible homilies about?


A year ago, Human Rights Watch called the forced dispersal, ‘most serious incident of mass unlawful killings in modern Egyptian history’, and they released an extensive report today with more questions that must be addressed. A couple of days ago, the Associated Press released their report about that day – and what happened. The quasi-state Egyptian body, the National Council of Human Rights, decried what they considered to have been police excesses. The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights placed the events of Rabaa into wider “Weeks of Killing”, where neither the state nor extra-state forces are considered as angelic, whether pro or anti-Mursi. The estimates vary depending on the human rights organization’s report, but the dispersal resulted in the lives of hundreds, possibly more than a thousand civilians who had been in the sit-in (even the Egyptian prime minister of the time confirmed that estimate publicly, let alone non-governmental sources). Police officers lost their lives also, in the dozens, according to state sources and human rights organizations. A plethora of other rights organizations have weighed in on what happened that day – and the gaping wound remains.

Societies are fortunate when those acts only affect them or their generation. But there are some acts that remain far beyond. Some traumas take a long time to heal – and those traumas need careful, delicate processes. Otherwise, the scabs keep coming off. Unfortunately, most in Egypt, apart from the rare few, aren’t really interested in healing – that would include accountability. And the major players aren’t interested in accountability and reform on a wide scale – not even those whose camp has suffered as a result, let alone those who have actually perpetrated the violations themselves. They’re interested in their own power – and the call for accountability is a threat to everyone’s power, if it is comprehensive, and covers not just this incident or that incident. Because in Egypt’s story, there are so very few that would escape that call – for Egypt has known a lot of traumas in the past few years. And, unfortunately, not nearly enough healing. Without that healing, we can be assured – those traumas will continue to affect many more to come.


Dr. H.A. Hellyer, non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, the Royal United Services Institute, and the Harvard University Kennedy School, previously held senior posts at Gallup and Warwick University. Follow him on Twitter at @hahellyer.



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