Two years ago today, at least 817 Egyptian protesters were massacred by their own government in what Human Rights Watch’s Executive Director, Kenneth Roth, has called “one of the world’s largest killings of demonstrators in a single day in recent history.” This is what it looked like:
The people who had encamped in the Rabaa Al-Adawiya Square had gathered there starting in early July, after a July 3 military coup had ousted the democratically elected government of Muslim Brotherhood figure Mohamed Morsi. These were supporters of the Brotherhood and of Morsi’s government, and while the interim coup government claimed that they represented an unacceptable threat to public safety, in reality the real concern was that these protesters were a public reminder that Morsi’s ouster was not universally welcomed by the Egyptian people. They had to go. So Egyptian security forces, using live ammunition, were sent in to clear the camp (and a smaller one in Giza); the protesters resisted, and hundreds died in the ensuing conflict.
Not a single person involved with the Rabaa massacre has been arrested in the ensuing two years, while the crackdown on political opposition in President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s Egypt has continued unabated. Rabaa made it clear that Egypt would see more violence, more repression, more authoritarianism under Sisi than it had under Morsi or even under Morsi’s predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, who was fairly dictatorial in his own right. It established that Sisi’s Egypt was a place where even the pretense of political opposition would not be tolerated. In short, Rabaa broke Egypt.
Egypt will probably recover from Rabaa at some point, but it’s hard to know when that might be. The Muslim Brotherhood has been outlawed again, driven back underground as it was for most of the 20th century. This time, though, with many of the organization’s more senior members either dead or in prison, and with Morsi’s experience so fresh in everybody’s minds, many of the Brotherhood’s younger members have abandoned its traditional commitment to achieving its aims through political transition, and increasingly are joining violent extremist movements (i.e., ISIS). Sisi and his ministers have to be careful about leaving Egypt for fear that they might be arrested on human rights charges once they’ve gone abroad. The country is fighting an all-out war against ISIS in Sinai, a war that threatens to erode Egypt’s all-important tourist business, which lost a lot of ground in the unrest that followed Mubarak’s ouster in 2011 and Morsi’s in 2013, and is still recovering.
The reaction of many in Egypt’s “liberal” community to Rabaa, those who defended the coup and the subsequent massacres because they didn’t like the Muslim Brotherhood, was stomach-churning. Many of these “liberals” argued that Morsi was himself governing autocratically and so removing him and his supporters from power by force was justified, but if you strip away the liberal bias against the Muslim Brotherhood, that case isn’t well-supported by the facts. Morsi was no liberal himself, and he did some things in office that were extraordinarily troubling, but his government was easily more liberal and more democratic than the military dictatorship that’s replaced it. It would certainly be understandable if a whole generation of young Egyptians was soured on the idea of liberal democracy after experiencing how these “liberals” reacted to the violent overthrow of a democratically elected government.
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