Ten years ago, hundreds of people, mostly civilians, were killed when Egyptian troops violently dispersed a sit-in protest by supporters of the recently ousted Islamist president. The crackdown on followers of Mohammed Morsi was one of the bloodiest incidents of its kind and one of Egypt’s darkest moments. BBC Arabic’s Sally Nabil reports from Cairo that the memories of that day are still raw.
“I wish I was never alive today,” said Amr, who took part in the sit-in that lasted nearly 50 days in Rabaa al-Adawiya Square, in the east of the capital.
Amr was only 20 years old when he “saw bulldozers crushing tents and sweeping away everything they came across”.
“On that day, humanity in Egypt was killed,” he says.
A few months after Rabaa, Amr was arrested on suspicions of, among other things, damaging public property and disturbing public order. He spent nearly five years in prison before fleeing Egypt and settling in the UK in late 2018.
He says he took part in the sit-in because he feared his country would fall into the hands of the army generals.
The violent spread of the sit-in in Rabaa and another in Nahda Square on the same day were not only unprecedented tragedies in Egypt’s recent history, but were also game changers that redefined the future of the Arab world’s most populous country. shapes.
When Mohammed Morsi, a leading figure in the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood group, was elected in 2012, he was the first civilian to reach the presidential palace through a democratic process. It was an extraordinary victory for his supporters.
A year later, however, anti-Morsi protesters took to the streets to demand his resignation. They accused him of following an Islamic agenda and not being president for all Egyptians. The military, a dominant political player for the past 70 years, watched.
Following the protests, Defense Minister Abdul Fattah al-Sisi removed Morsi from power, bringing an abrupt end to the short-lived civilian rule. Mr. Sisi himself was elected president a year later and has held that position ever since.
Egyptian authorities have always claimed that they repeatedly called on Muslim Brotherhood leaders to end what they called an “illegal” sit-in, but were ignored. The state saw Rabaa al-Adawiya Square as an insurgent zone that needed to be addressed.
It never occurred to Amr that live ammunition would be used. He thought the police would resort to much softer tactics, such as water cannons or even tear gas. He said he couldn’t believe so many lives have been lost due to political division.
“There were dead bodies everywhere,” he recalls. “We couldn’t keep count. We couldn’t help each other.’
His breathing becomes heavy as he gives his account of the day.
“A long line of civilians, including women and children, raised their hands and left the sit-in when they were shot dead by snipers. I saw them with my own eyes.”
Authorities said they opened safe corridors for people to leave before sending troops. But in a report released a year after the dispersal, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said security forces “besieged protesters for most of the day, attacking from each of the square’s five main entrances, leaving no safe exit.” until the end of the day.”
Egypt says more than 600 people, mostly civilians, have been killed. However, other counts from the Muslim Brotherhood, now banned in Egypt, speak of more than 1,000. HRW said at least 817 people lost their lives.
Most of the victims were in the Muslim Brotherhood camp, but some police officers were also killed. Violence continued for days after the spread.
‘The Living Martyr’
The mother of one of those cops still feels the pain of losing her son.
Mustafa says his mother, Wafaa, came out of the August 14 chaos unscathed. Two days later, he was shot three times in a shootout as he made his way to a police station in south Cairo.
Mustafa was in his twenties when he died in 2016, after being in a coma for three years. During this time, Wafaa never left his bed in intensive care.
“People who knew him called him the living martyr,” she says.
She holds back tears as she talks to me about her eldest and closest son.
“We are devastated, everything is tasteless without him, we are not alive.”
There isn’t a single wall in the family’s house that doesn’t have Mustafa’s picture on it. Wafaa tries to find comfort in her eldest grandson, who is named after his deceased uncle.
Since Mustafa died, his parents have been in poor health, which they attribute to their grief.
When I ask Wafaa about the Muslim Brotherhood’s claim that the protests were peaceful, she is blunt in her answer.
“They’re a bunch of liars,” she says angrily.
Human Rights Watch said the murder in Rabaa “not only constituted a serious violation of international human rights law, but likely amounted to crimes against humanity”.
The Egyptian authorities have vehemently denied all these allegations. The Interior Ministry said the participants in the sit-in in Rabaa were armed and posed a serious threat to public order.
“To this day, when I hear police sirens or a helicopter hovering, I can barely breathe. I remember right away,” says Amr, who was arrested a few months after the sit-in and spent about five years in prison .
He says his entire family has been traumatized since 2013. His younger brother, who had a leg amputated, is still behind bars, charged with membership in a terrorist group, and his late father was also imprisoned for a few years. accused of protesting without permission.
“Even if I get the chance to return to Egypt, the life I once had is over,” he says.