“Rabaa should last in the memory of every Egyptian resisting the coup, against the repression, against the imprisonment that’s ongoing in Egypt.”
Blood streamed through the streets of eastern Cairo on 14th August 2013, as the Egyptian military led by Abdelfattah Sisi violently dispersed demonstrators camping in Rabaa Square, on live TV.
On 3rd July, the Egyptian military overthrew the country’s first democratically elected president Mohammed Morsi, at the heels of protests calling for an early presidential election. Morsi, who died in prison in June 2019, was elected as Egypt’s first civilian president, following the popular Egyptian Revolution of 25 January 2011.
What followed were protests for a consecutive 45-days across various areas in Cairo, most popular of which was the Rabaa Al-Adawiya square, more commonly known as Rabaa Square.
Zainab* a 21 year old student living between Doha and Istanbul was 12 years old at the time, just about entering adolescence. Coming from a politically involved family, a father who was a member of Morsi’s political party and long-time opposition to the Mubarak regime, the Muslim Brotherhood, was politically aware and would join her family at the demonstrations and sit-ins in Rabaa Square regularly.
“In Rabaa, everyone was aware and understanding of the situation, it was like a continuation of January 2011. There was a common understanding that we were going down to fight for our rights and justice,” Zainab told Doha News.
Discrepancies: a tale of two cities
The young student described the situation as one of hope prior to the Rabaa massacre, but at the cost of feeling “out of the box” among the rest of her school friends.
“When I would go to the gym or go to my classes, I felt like I was weird or out of the box. Even those who had families who went to Rabaa, would come and tell me secretly and never outwardly declare it. This was something that I didn’t understand – because I had experienced 25 January [Egyptian uprising] before this and this was not the same. In the Egyptian revolution, the entire nation was going down to protest against Mubarak and military rule. Everyone was demanding freedom together – but here there was a dissonance and I was not fully understanding why,” she said.
When the massacre occurred, Zainab was not among the demonstrators in the square, but her mother, brother and friends were. She still did not fully grasp the situation until her mother and brother returned home distraught, and her father was detained some days later for four years.
Doha based-researcher Saif, who was 18 years old at the time, was among the demonstrators and had spent his summer protesting the Sisi regime – but was away from the scene when the events in Rabaa first started.
“I was on my way to what would have been my university, I was so excited to get into this university and was headed there to complete my registration. I called my friend on my way there to tell him to reserve me a place in a tent at Rabaa, because we didn’t have WhatsApp then and the way to communicate was through calling. I called him and found him shouting at me through the phone saying ‘Saif, we’re facing fire, they’ve opened fire on us and are about to commit a massacre!”
Being halfway across the city, Saif recalls his anger at what was happening and how seemingly peaceful everyone around him were. “I was in the train and lost control, I began shouting at everyone that people in Rabaa are being massacred! Everyone here is responsible!”
In a desperate attempt to reach his other friends in the sit-in, Saif began calling them one by one to no avail until eventually one responded telling him, “there’s a helicopter above us that is shooting at us.”
By this point, the metro had stopped suddenly as commuters were becoming aware of the massacre taking place and began protesting inside train and on the platform, searching for policemen to hold responsible for the news coming out. “When I managed to get off the train I found fire all around me with police jeeps on fire as people across the country began protesting at the sights around us on TV screens and from word of mouth.”
By 11am the state had declared a state of emergency. Saif – in South Cairo at this point, began making his way to East Cairo. “I knew that the protestors, my friends in Rabaa, were facing death – but what type of death? I still didn’t know.”
The Rabaa Massacre
The operation began at sunrise, when the Egyptian military enclosed the demonstrators and opened fire in both Rabaa and Al-Nahda squares among other places in eastern Cairo. Bulldozers, police, armoured personnel and the army attacked the encampments, which encompassed people of all demographics including women and children, as snipers shot down from rooftops and helicopters.
First responders were unable to reach the wounded as it was deemed too dangerous for ambulances to get in, with Human Rights Watch (HRW) reporting that security forces used “lethal force indiscriminately” on the large crowds in an attempt to disperse them, documenting hundreds of protestors killed by bullets “to their heads, necks and chests.”
Eyewitnesses saw unarmed demonstrators being shot as they ran to retrieve the bodies of the fallen, rendering many of them killed or wounded in the process; as the demonstrator tents were set ablaze regardless of whether people were inside or not.
Official number counts of the dead after the storming of the squares stand at approximately 1000, though eyewitnesses and survivors estimate the number to exceed 2000.
In an investigation conducted by HRW on Egyptian security forces’ response to the demonstrations and encampments, they found that the killings not only constituted serious violations of international human rights law, but also likely amounted to crimes against humanity, given their “widespread and systematic nature and the evidence suggesting the killings were part of a policy to attack unarmed persons on political grounds.”
Unable to get into Rabaa Square, Saif joined the protests before helping his friend who had been shot in the shoulder by Egyptian security forces. He recalls calling all his friends who had been in the square that day, some responded whilst others didn’t. They had been killed.
“This [is] the worst day of my life, because civilians – unarmed protestors were being shot and no one could do anything to stop it. Even the [other] political parties were in on what happened”, Saif told Doha News.
Rabaa was not the only massacre that took place that day, various other places around East Cairo were bulldozed and attacked by Egyptian security forces including Masjid al-Iman. Reports state that over 200 bodies lay shrouded in white cloth and ice in the mosque, some completely charred and others with smashed skulls and bullet-ridden.
The Egyptian ministry of health has been accused of not acknowledging the dead in Masjid al-Iman, as the hundreds of corpses were not included in their official tally of deaths that day.
Zainab’s life changed forever after the Rabaa massacre, as she became the girl with a detainee for a father. She suffered as many of her role models were killed that day, and yet her school and social environments seemed unaffected entirely.
“People were shot and killed in Rabaa Square, and the next day I went to school and to the gym as though nothing had happened. People around me didn’t seem bothered, they were smiling and going about their lives as though thousands of people had not just been killed,” she told Doha News.
“I felt like everything had been taken away from me suddenly. There are many people I knew who were killed in the Rabaa massacre. I used to see them [in the protests] in Rabaa. I used to admire them a lot, and I found them being taken [away from me]. Some were martyred, some were broken – when I saw my mother and brother distraught and my father detained at the same time – I was feeling like I was all alone, but there were still high hope that all of this will come to an end.”
Her Saturdays were consumed by visiting her father in prison, and upon his release four years later she felt like she could finally ‘be normal’ and lead a normal life. Though due to the insecurity around her family’s situation, her family decided to move to Türkiye before settling in Qatar.
Upon arriving at the airport, at the age of 16 with her whole family, Zainab’s mother was arrested – forcing the family to leave the country whilst her mother languished in Sisi’s prison for three months, managing only to join the family abroad a year later.
“Egypt broke me”, Zainab said as she recalls everything her and her family had to go through to be together and safe again. “I felt betrayed by everyone around me. The more time passes, the more I don’t understand how people can allow for something like this to happen. How were we just 2 years ago chanting “Horreyya” – freedom – in Tahrir Square together, and after that you are handing out rice pudding celebrating people being murdered. How?”
Zainab is not alone in believing that Rabaa changed the trajectory of her life, as Saif also recounts how he thinks of Rabaa every day. Having been detained shortly after the massacre for his activism, the young researcher spent a year and a month in prison before being released – and consequently moving to Doha.
“I chose self-exile, because Egypt wasn’t safe – I was constantly on the run. In Doha, I can be free. I chose freedom. Here I can speak as I like, I can write as I like. I am free.”
But freedom still comes at the cost of remembering his days in prison as a young adult, and the increasing lack of agency in how the story of Rabaa has been told.
A battle for narrative
As the Egyptian regime pour money into producing entertainment, music and television series on the events of 14th August, Rabaa survivors feel like they have been completely erased from the nation’s history.
“Where is our narrative? We [haven’t been able to] write our narrative yet, this could disappear in history with only the state narrative preserved,” Saif told Doha News.
Echoing his calls for preserving national memory without allowing the state to taint it, Zainab said, “I don’t understand how Egypt is going to be fixed when we’re not even addressing Rabaa. We’re not addressing how people were ululating on their balconies and distributing food between each other [in celebration] of people being murdered. They were referring to [us] as terrorists. And they were content with people being killed.”
In his ongoing work and activism, Saif pledges to keep the memory of Rabaa alive in spite of the ongoing normalisation of the Sisi regime by states across the world. He understands that national interests precede that of the people when referring to the foriegn policies of states, but believes that the responsibility lies ultimately with the Egyptian nation to not allow the massacre to go unaccounted.
“Rabaa should last in the memory of every Egyptian resisting the coup, against the repression, against the imprisonment that’s ongoing in Egypt. It should [be remembered] as the biggest massacre committed against civilians in Egypt’s modern history. And we should start in any kind of resistance, in any kind of fight for freedom – from the Rabaa massacre.
We should at least preserve it as a memory and preserve our narrative that the police, the army and and cooperators with them – committed the biggest massacre in Egyptian modern history, on 14th August of 2013.”