Seven years ago, on August 14, 2013, Egypt witnessed its own “Tiananmen Square” episode, as the government murdered around 1,000 peaceful protestors in a single day.
Demonstrators had been protesting the July 3, 2013 military coup which overthrew the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood (or al-Ikhwan al-Muslimeen) government of Mohamed Morsi. Around 85,000 protestors staged sit ins in Rabaa al-Adawiya Square in northern Cairo’s district of Nasr City, up until the horrific massacre.
Security forces opened fire on protestors and violently dispersed them, while killing those trying to flee. Human Rights Watch called it “one of the world’s largest killings of demonstrators in a single day in recent history.”
While many were Morsi supporters, others were reportedly not affiliated to the Brotherhood, and were merely outraged at the military’s forceful takeover. Women, children, and elderly were among them.
The act was deemed a “crime against humanity,” and is considered the final nail in the coffin for Egypt’s Arab Spring.
The act was deemed a “crime against humanity,” and is considered the final nail in the coffin for Egypt’s Arab Spring, whose funeral the military coup orchestrated. Several Egyptians report losing friends, while many Brotherhood members fled the country, to avoid imprisonment and execution. Some in the country are still traumatized and report the event gave them lasting depression.
Egyptian officials were never held to account, despite independent investigations from Human Rights Watch and the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights showing it was a premeditated assault on unarmed protestors. On the contrary, the victims were treated like criminals.
Though the US and European Union immediately condemned this massacre, business soon continued as usual, and no efforts were made to hold the perpetrators accountable.
Forced Underground Once Again
The military’s long-term objective was to eliminate any dissent, and it perceived the Brotherhood as its primary foe. The faction was repressed for years, particularly under Hosni Mubarak’s pre-revolution regime. It won Egypt’s first free presidential elections in 2012, having been more organized and ready to mobilize over any other opposition movements.
Military general Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who led the counter-revolution and is now Egypt’s president, sought to drive the faction underground. He targeted public organizations, the military, the judiciary, universities, media organizations, and civil society. Egypt banned the Brotherhood in September 2013, and again declared it a terrorist organization the following December, with several subsequent series of arrests of Brotherhood members and supporters.
Many Brotherhood members now live in exile in Istanbul, Doha, and London.
Many Brotherhood members now live in exile in Istanbul, Doha, and London. Thousands however languish in Egyptian prisons today, and some still receive death sentences, even as the faction tries to operate while enduring repression.
The Brotherhood is Egypt’s oldest and largest Islamic faction, founded in Egypt in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna, who initially sought to unify disenfranchised Islamic communities against British colonial rule. It since expanded and promoted a form of Islamic rule over state and society, influencing factions in other regional countries – such as Jordan, Palestine’s Gaza strip, Libya, Yemen, and Syria, and charitable organizations. However, there is no real centralization between the transnational groups.
It claimed to renounce violence and the more radical views of theorist Sayyid Qutb, who Egyptian President Gamal Nasser executed in 1966, and instead sought power through peaceful democratic means. Though its critics present it as still having radical ulterior motives.
It maintained its largely pyramidic power structure, and its leaders still communicate and operate with imprisoned members from their bases of Istanbul, Doha, and London, seeking to revive the Brotherhood as a viable Egyptian opposition force.
On the other hand, some analysts argue the organization is divided over political and constitutional matters. There is also speculation that some members, disenfranchised with the Brotherhood’s path and defeats, may even split and join more radical factions.
Despite potential fractures, most members within the organization are still committed to the Brotherhood’s ideals. Many will be looking to adapt, create future alliances, and seize opportunities to mobilize.
Morsi’s death in prison in June 2019 certainly damaged a common unifying factor for the Brotherhood’s members and damaged the group’s morale. In any case, though it may be eyeing up a comeback, the Brotherhood is still limited in its operations in Egypt.
Sisi’s Propaganda Campaign
Despite the Brotherhood currently posing a limited threat, Sisi still presents them as an existential danger to Egypt, and the Brotherhood is his primary political bogeyman. Sisi has pushed the narrative of a battle between “stable” authoritarianism and Islamist extremism, which also creates the pretext for his general crackdown on any political dissent.
“As long as we have political Islamic movements that aspire to power, our region will remain in a state of instability,” Sisi previously claimed.
Sisi’s “counter-terrorism” image has attracted Western support. A senior European official in a key state once said, “We know Sisi is bad for human rights. But he is good at killing terrorists.”
With France launching its own campaign against political Islam and what President Emmanuel Macron calls “Islamic separatism,” and Trump previously toying with labeling the Brotherhood as a terrorist faction, such narratives further bolster Sisi’s “anti-extremist” façade. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates’ backing of Sisi, largely due to their hostility to the Brotherhood, further bolsters his rule.
Sisi’s government has utilized anti-Brotherhood propaganda to target all levels of society and gain domestic support.
Ultimately, Sisi’s government has utilized anti-Brotherhood propaganda to target all levels of society and gain domestic support. In August 2018, after protests against metro ticket prices increasing by 300 percent in Cairo, the head of Cairo’s metro claimed that the Brotherhood was responsible for encouraging the demonstrations.
In September 2019, Egyptians once again took to the streets in anti-regime protests, suggesting that revolutionaries had not yet given up hope. Pro-government commentators accused the Brotherhood of fermenting this unrest, while ignoring the socio-economic conditions that triggered them.
Such propaganda helped justify the Rabaa massacre. Egyptian author Alaa Al-Aswany endorsed the Rabaa killings, claiming “they are a group of terrorists and fascists.” State media has also echoed such narratives, to whitewash the regime’s atrocities in Rabaa and the crackdown on the Brotherhood in general.
Future Challenges to Sisi’s Rule
Given that Egypt’s anti-Brotherhood military dominates the country, and that the Brotherhood’s perceived economic mismanagement made some Egyptians doubt their governing capability while in power, the faction could struggle to become a viable opposition force in the short-term.
As for general reforms, it is more likely that Sisi would eventually face challenges within Egypt’s political establishment rather than from society. This could be from a figure who sees him as incompetent and tries to address Egypt’s problems from the inside, and push Sisi aside. After all, Egypt has an ailing economy, and greater opposition could manifest because of government failures over socio-economic conditions.
For the time being, however, Sisi has consolidated power, and seeks to become president for life. Western support, as well as from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, currently ensures military rule in Egypt, as well as the suppressing of the Brotherhood. Any meaningful short-term reforms would be limited within this restrictive system.
This also means the victims of the Rabaa massacre will likely struggle to receive full justice.