Egyptian authorities pave over Rabaa massacre

Three months after state forces killed hundreds of Egyptian protesters, the massacre has been whitewashed – both literally and from official records.

Amr Nabil/AP
A supporter of Egypt's ousted President Mohamed Morsi raises his poster and her hand with four raised fingers, which has become a symbol of the Rabaa Al Adawiya mosque, where Morsi supporters had held a sit-in for weeks that was violently dispersed in August, during a protest in Cairo, Nov. 8, 2013.

Three months after the worst mass killing in Egypt's modern history, the square where it took place bears little evidence of the violence.

The mosque that served as the focal point of a protest camp, blackened from fires set during the violence, has been repainted a fresh cream color. The smoking debris left behind after security forces stormed the sit-in and killed hundreds of people has been cleared away. In its place is a monument erected by the military that hails the police and military for protecting the people.

To the families of those who died that day, it's a bitter reminder of the state's denial of the Aug. 14 killings, and the willingness by much of society to endorse the killings or simply look away.

Noha Zayed, whose brother and cousin were killed during the dispersal of the sit-in at Rabaa Al Adawiya, which protested the July military coup, says she avoids going out as much as possible so that she doesn't have to interact with people who laud the security forces' performance that day, or end up in discussions that invariably turn to politics. Amid widespread glorification of the military and denouncements of the sit-in protesters as terrorists, she no longer feels at home in Egypt. She contemplates leaving the country, or at least Cairo.

“I don't want to be here,” she says. “I don't want my kids to grow up and have to serve in this army.”

Adham Hasanin, whose uncle was killed in the Rabaa dispersal and whose cousin was killed in a confrontation with police days later, says he feels bitterness every time he hears the hit song “Bless the hands,” which praises the military and was widely played in the days following Aug. 14.

“Why are we thanking them? Why are we blessing the hands of those who killed us, who killed women and youth and old men?” he asked. “We should not ask for blessing of these hands, we believe we should ask for paralyzing these hands."

This week, as the state of emergency and curfew imposed on Aug. 14 expired and Cairo resumed its normal routine, there was little public outcry over the fact that the government has not launched an official investigation of the killings, nor even released a final death toll. 

“What we have with Rabaa is much more than the usual lack of action. What we have is a cover-up operation,” says Heba Morayef, Egypt director for Human Rights Watch. “The state is still refusing to acknowledge the mass killings that happened on that day.”

While hundreds of protesters who were arrested on Aug. 14 are still in pretrial detention on charges of assaulting police officers, Ms. Morayef notes that no police officer has been questioned over the killings. Over the past two and a half years, the only instances of police accountability for killing protesters – even if they are “token gestures” – have come as a result of mass public pressure, says Ms. Morayef. But there is little public appetite now to compel the government to hold security forces accountable. 

In a September interview with Egyptian daily Al Masry Al Youm, Prime Minister Hazem Al Beblawi said roughly 1,000 people died on Aug. 14, the most specific figure authorities have given.

Egypt's military-backed government points to the fact that some sit-in members were armed and fought back against police as justification. At least 43 members of the security forces were killed in the violence across the country that day. But a Human Rights Watch report says police used excessive force that was not justified by the “limited possession of arms by some protesters,” and that the failure to allow a safe exit from the sit-in, including for the wounded, was a “serious violation of international standards.”

A family tragedy

Ms. Zayed's story underlines the state and public indifference over the Aug. 14 killings. Her brother Kareem was not a member of the Muslim Brotherhood or an Islamist, and he wasn't politically active, according to her. But he did hold strong convictions against military intervention in politics, and he was a regular at protests against military rule and confrontations with police, getting wounded multiple times in clashes the past two and a half years. 

Kareem, who worked as an air traffic controller at the airport in Sharm el Sheikh, was both an intensely private and strongly principled person, says Zayed. While many in Egypt accuse those in the Rabaa sit-in of being sheep who blindly follow the Muslim Brotherhood, Kareem “had very strong independent opinions,” Zayed says. “You could not brainwash my brother. You could not in any way convince him to do anything that he did not logically think was right.”

He was very close to his younger cousin Seif Nafae, an engineer who had recently started his first job, says Zayed. They would often go hiking together in Sinai, and they both headed to the sit-in at Rabaa al Adawiyah on Aug. 14.

A video from Seif's mobile phone appears to show his last moments. In it, a group of security forces wearing helmets and carrying shields advance down a street slowly and warily. Some are firing rifles. Suddenly the camera falls, and a cry of fear or pain is heard. Then the video ends.

Seif was shot through the heart, says Zayed. Kareem took his cousin to a nearby hospital, and called his family to deliver the news. After they arrived at the hospital, Kareem headed back to the square.

Zayed's uncle was still at the hospital an hour and a half later, standing outside, when a small truck pulled up, carrying bodies from the ongoing crackdown. He recognized Kareem's shoes.

Kareem had been shot in the stomach, but he was still alive, and underwent emergency surgery. His condition was serious, so several days later, his mother tried to move him to a private hospital, where conditions were better than at the public hospital where he was being treated. But all private hospitals they contacted refused to admit him, says Zayed. “They refused flat out. ... Nobody would take him.”

While it wasn't stated explicitly, she says, it was clear hospitals were refusing to accept those wounded in the police crackdown.

Zayed was with him on his last night, Aug. 19. “He had all the tubes and everything. They had stopped working on him ... his oxygen levels were going down. I sat with him for about 45 minutes, just watching these numbers, slowly, coming to zero.”

Without a trace

In the following days, Zayed struggled against a state bureaucracy determined to deny culpability as she completed the paperwork necessary to bury her brother. The police report on his death, which she was compelled to sign, stated that she did not accuse anyone of killing him. She broke down in the police station, weeping and fighting for an hour, before relatives convinced her to sign the report so they could bury Kareem.

She sat in another government office waiting for a death certificate, in a room full of people whose loved ones had been killed in the police crackdown. As they waited, one song played on repeat in the office, the refrain pulsing again and again from the speakers: “Bless the hands,” the ode to the military.

“You're sitting there, trying to bury people who were killed by these hands, and they have this 'bless the hands' song going on and on,” says Zayed. “It's on purpose, there's no way that this is not intentional.”

When she finally received Kareem's death certificate, there was a blank where the cause of death was supposed to be listed. When she protested, officials explained the process to appeal the decision: a torturous one that was essentially impossible.

Three months later, she watched footage of the crackdown that she couldn't bring herself to view before. What struck her, she says, is the sheer number of those who were killed – and the authorities' denial, despite the overwhelming evidence.

“In the past few years many horrible things have happened. In the end, they're all equally horrible," she says. "But this was really huge, and it's like it never happened.”

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