Five Years On: The Troubled Legacy of Egypt’s Rabaa Massacre

This week marks the five-year anniversary of the killing of protesters in Rabaa al-Adawiya Square, in Cairo, by Egyptian security forces. 

This week marks the five-year anniversary of the killing of protesters in Rabaa al-Adawiya Square, in Cairo, by Egyptian security forces. 

Five years later, little has been done to redress the killings, and recent events in Egypt further illustrate the injustices that have been perpetrated against the protesters at Rabaa Square.

On August 14, 2013, supporters of the deposed president, Mohamed Morsi, engaged in a sit-in in Rabaa al-Adawiya square, were forcibly removed in a security operation that killed at least 817 people and injured more than 4,000. The massacre is the worst in Egypt’s modern history and has left an enduring rift in the political landscape. The anniversary of the massacre follows the recent decision by Egyptian courts to hand down death sentences to 75 defendants who were accused of clashing with police and security forces during the Rabaa dispersal.

The events of August 2013 followed months of political instability and protests against Morsi, the first democratically elected president of Egypt. Anti-Morsi groups had demanded early presidential elections in attempts to force his resignation, and they were met with counter-protests by pro-Morsi groups, resulting in frequent, violent clashes. Prior to his overthrow by a military coup in July 2013, Morsi’s supporters had occupied Rabaa al-Adawiya Square to celebrate the one-year anniversary of his presidency.

The Rabaa massacre remains an incendiary topic in Egypt, especially because none of the members of the security forces involved in the atrocity has been prosecuted to date.

After the coup, the gathering quickly became a sit-in protest against his forcible deposition, and drew up to 85,000 people over its course, according to Al-Jazeera. Despite initial attempts by authorities to resolve the increasingly hostile situation peacefully, on August 14 security forces entered the square and attacked the camp that had housed the sit-in for 45 days. Within hours, over 800 were dead, and more than 4,000 were wounded, as security forces stormed through the camp with military vehicles and bulldozers, firing into the panicked crowd.

The massacre remains an incendiary topic in Egypt, especially because none of the members of the security forces involved in the atrocity has been prosecuted to date. Representatives for the security forces continue to deny wrongdoing, and the Egyptian government has made no effort to hold those responsible for the killings accountable.

In reports commissioned by the Egyptian authorities, most of the blame was laid on the organizers of the protest, and the ensuing casualties were deemed “justified” as a response to armed provocation from members of the crowd. However, in its report issued a year after the massacre, Human Rights Watch found evidence that the security forces intentionally used lethal force in dispersing the sit-in, and that the government had planned for thousands of casualties when planning the operation. The report found that the massacre was the result of a policy designed to target unarmed, politically-active individuals, and that the actions of the Egyptian security forces constituted crimes against humanity.

Recent decisions by the Egyptian government have been far from reconciliatory. The perpetrators of the massacre at Rabaa remain unpunished, and the actions of the authorities have ensured that there is unlikely to be any redress. In July, the Egyptian Parliament passed a law on the “treatment of the armed forces’ senior commanders” that enabled the president to grant ministerial status to officers, HRW reported. This law will effectively grant immunity to these officers for crimes which occurred between July 2013 and January 2016. Many believe that the new law, and the lack of any concerted effort by security forces to investigate the massacre, are symptomatic of a desire to erase the events of August 2013.

Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at HRW, said “Five years on from the Rab’a massacre, the only response from authorities has been to try to insulate those responsible for these crimes from justice. . . .The response from Egypt’s allies to the crimes at Rab’a and to the lack of justice for the victims has been complete silence.”

The inaction of the government or judicial system regarding the actions of the security forces is not mirrored in the government’s treatment of the protesters arrested during the course of the dispersal at Rabaa. 739 defendants were accused of various crimes, ranging from premeditated murder, destruction of public property, attacking citizens, and possessing firearms. 75 of those accused were tried by the Cairo Criminal Court on July 28,this year, and sentenced to death. The possibility for appeal remains, and final sentencing has been adjourned until September 8. The trial is widely considered unfair, and designed to deflect responsibility for the violence of Rabaa Square away from the security forces and onto those attending the sit-in.

With the final decision of the court, the Egyptian government may hope to be finished with the uncomfortable topic of the Rabaa massacre, and to consign it to a troubled chapter in the past.

“President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s regime is keen to wipe out all memory of the massacre of the summer of 2013 even though the spectre of what happened will always loom over his administration,” Amnesty International’s Najia Bounaim said.

“The Egyptian authorities’ repeated failure to respect the rights of protestors and their failure to hold anyone accountable for mass murders has contributed to an environment in which the security forces feel empowered to violate human rights with absolute impunity.”