. How did we arrive here? On the Anniversary of Egypt’s Rabaa Massacre

Comment | How did we arrive here? On the Anniversary of Egypt’s Rabaa Massacre

This month marks the seventh anniversary of the Rabaa Massacre, which signalled the end of Egypt’s once promising democratic project. While the military’s role in the revolution’s defeat is clear, Egypt’s liberal and leftist forces must examine their own complicities and failures, writes Hesham Shafick.

Editor's Desk, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Monday, August 3, 2020 10:21 - 0 Comments

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August 2013, a man sits amidst burning tents in the aftermath of the Rabaa massacre. (Credit: Time/Mosa’ab Elshamy)

It is impossible to know how many of us are out there, particularly in the absence of a public space where we share what we think and feel about politics. But looking at the numbers of people behind bars or in self-exile, or those totally avoiding any talk about politics whatsoever, give us some indication. Something went terribly wrong, and the Egyptian population which was once a universal case-study of speaking up against authoritarian rule is now enduring one of the most painful silences in its history. Because of such silence, we cannot decide if there is a critical mass that shares the same feeling of political depression. But we can easily assert that the political situation is indeed depressing.

The military junta has turned Egypt into a prison state; with an unprecedented prison population of 116,000. For every thousand people in Egypt, one is locked up. This might explain why most Egyptians would say they have at least one acquaintance who is “taken” – as the vernacular term, signifying a deep normalisation of extra-legal incarceration, has it. Among many other things, Egyptians are being incarcerated for Facebook posts, TikTok videos, and even for reporting being raped. In a state that only speaks in terms of war and conspiracy, everyone is a potential suspect, a prisoner-to-be.

On the seventh anniversary of the so-called ‘30 June Revolution’, we woke up to the news that a teenager, Manar Samy, was arrested and prosecuted for ‘deliberate sedition.’ She is one of a handful of young women arrested recently under similar allegations, all for the mere fact of having danced on a social media app (TikTok). The irony of her being arrested on the anniversary of the supposed rebellion against Islamic rule (or, more precisely, against the risk of possibly having to endure such rule sometime) was very telling. It was a clear and loud reminder that it is not the ideology of the ruler but how they rule that confines freedom. Not that such arrests could not have happened under the Muslim Brotherhood’s rule, but rather that in a democracy, officials abusing their powers under the law would have been held accountable for it.

It is this absence of accountability that is normalising every single aspect of authoritarian rule that many of us, ironically, participated in June 30 uprisings to avoid: the criminalisation of sexual freedoms, the securitisation of morality, the patriarchal state, the imprisonment of dissidents, the closure of the public space, the political hijacking of state and public institutions, the ceding of sovereignty over Egyptian land and resources, and the crisis of the Nile Basin. I emphasise the term ‘avoid here because that was what it was: None of these authoritarian excesses were actually happening when we revolted against them; we were driven by the danger that they could possibly happen. Now all of these are present, clearly and bluntly, but no one is any longer able to do anything about it.

The military rulers made no promises they could be held accountable for. The Marshall-turned-President now in charge openly refused to put forward any political mandate. He came to power by force, he remains in power by force, and he makes no effort to deny either. He openly warns potential rivals against “getting near [his ruling] chair”; while his state apparatus systematically locks up every serious contender that gestures at the possibility of running against him. And now, with Egypt’s COVID-19 national crisis becoming the headline of world news, medics are arrested for merely hinting at the presence of such crisis. Incarceration seems to be the regime’s one-fits-all answer to silence all calls and cries from the suffering public – political, social, medical, or whatever.  

It might be tempting to think that this state was inevitable. A military junta, the story goes, toppled the democratic order and instated itself as a ‘régner par la force’ alternative. The binary casting of this story makes it convenient to narrate: a classical war of good versus evil in which the innocent protagonist bravely stood up to the villain only to be crushed and victimised. But we do know this story to be false. Egypt’s public space was not hijacked by the military junta, but was handed over to it.

Make no mistake, the military leadership aimed to hijack the revolution from its very first moments. But could they? Not until they were invited to. In February 2011, military leaders were forced – and that is the appropriate term – to remove the long-ruling tyrant and military war icon, Hosni Mubarak; then his parliament, then the government he appointed. Later, they were forced to shut down the draconian state security department, cancel their own supra-constitutional declaration, and eventually hand over power to an elected regime after one full year of intransigent reluctance. They were then forced to accept a presidential decision to significantly minimise their powers and radically reshuffle their leadership.

Even when, in the Summer of 2013, they intervened militarily to topple the democratically elected regime, the military leadership could only do that in close partnership with civilian allies. The civilian political forces not only led the calls for toppling Morsi; they were also integral to the articulation, declaration, and execution of the post-Morsi road map. After Morsi’s ouster, an iconic figure of the January 25 revolution, Mohamed El-Baradei, was appointed as the Vice-President of the interim state; and plenty others among the revolution loyalists were appointed as ministers and senior advisers. This could all have been, as Walter Armbrust points out, a trickster plan to gradually hijack power. But it reflects a significant fact that has ultimately been forgotten: At the time Morsi fell, Egypt’s civilian political forces, and particularly January revolutionaries, were too powerful for the military junta to dismiss.

The Rabaa massacre could not have happened without Sisi’s regime enjoying civilian backup. The latter took two forms: grassroots ‘authorisation’ demonstrations and formal consultation rounds with political leaders. The demonstrations were called for by the head of the army, now president, himself to ensure that street-level activists were either on his side or represented as such. The rounds of talks involved the vast majority of the January revolution’s key figures and groups, and were led by Ahmed El Moslemany, an author and media figure known for his intense critiques of the Mubarak regime.

Once Sisi’s troops deployed lethal force against Muslim Brotherhood supporters at Rabaa, killing at least a thousand protestors in a few hours, Egypt’s civilian voices went silence. Human Rights Watch reported that this massive bloodshed was entirely unnecessary, a conclusion echoed by the Vice-President’s own testament which suggested peacefully dispersing the protesters would have very likely succeeded through negotiation. While the use of force was unnecessary in that sense, the show of force was not. This show of force, and its underlying message that the junta is capable of mercilessly tearing down dissent, was the main function of the massive killing of the Rabaa demonstrators. This was about more than asserting ownership of the means of violence, which after all were always in the military leadership’s possession. The Rabaa massacre was enabled in part by a civilian backup that allowed for the violence to pass without causing serious upheavals. The message the Rabaa massacre communicated was this: the junta was not only able and willing to massacre dissidents but, more significantly, would be popularly praised for it.

This message was forcefully communicated to both sides of the political game, the Brotherhood’s supporters and their opponents in the secular camp, including those who blessed the coup and its violent measures. Immediately following this show of force, protest was criminalised (unless formally ‘authorised’ by the state), emergency laws were reinstated and extended indefinitely (indeed, they remain in effect at the time of writing, seven years later), and most of the notable dissidents were either incarcerated or forced into exile. The rest was history, in its bleakest form.  

That being said, we should not confuse the fatal blow with the process that led to the murder. Yes, it was the barrel of the gun that declared the end of Egypt’s once promising democratic project, but there was a long political process that authorised the rule of the gun in the first place – a process which we, liberal and leftist activists, politicians, and intellectuals, were at the forefront of. As a famous Egyptian song by Mohamed Mounir puts it, “it was always the case that soldiers were soldiers; but back then, civilian people were civilian people.” It is only when Egypt’s civilian forces gave up their commitment to democracy, civilian politics, and political nonviolence that the military could make its way back to its rule by force.

The situation would not have led us to where we are today had it not been for the liberals’ cooperation with the military junta at decisive junctures: the shy yet strategic calls for military intervention on June 30th protests, the joint declaration of the coup by a mixture of civilian and military leaders, the participation in and grassroots support for Sisi’s de facto government, the whitewashing of the military’s corrupt history, the glorification of its alleged role in protecting the two uprisings, and finally the civilian authorisation of, and later silence around, the Rabaa massacre and the extra-legal incarcerations and executions that followed it.

None of this was inevitable. We had several chances to act before the tanks took full control of the streets – the streets which, we must remind ourselves, we once forcefully dominated. The military no doubt worked on defeating the revolution since its first moments, but they were incapable of doing so on their own.

This is not a call for self-flagellation. It is perhaps the opposite. For if we recognise that the failure of the democratic project in Egypt was partially caused by our own actions as civilian activists; then we would, by extension, recognise once again what our actions imply politically.

And so, as we approach the gloomy anniversary of the Rabaa massacre, it is necessary to remind ourselves that we were once too powerful and united for such a massacre to happen. That is the main reason why such a massacre did not happen anytime earlier, and it is also why it is in our power to ensure it would never happen again.

Hesham Shafick

Hesham Shafick is a teaching associate at the School of Politics and International Relations at Queen Mary University of London, where he teaches courses on everyday politics, international relations, and the post-colonial Middle East. He is an associate fellow of the UK Higher Education Academy.

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