Friday 24 May 2019

Five years on, Rabaa massacre 'an open wound' for Egyptians

The scenes in Cairo’s Rabaa square five years ago, when the Egyptian army fired on demonstrators, leaving 800 dead in an act described by Human Rights Watch as a crime against humanity. Photo: Reuters
The scenes in Cairo’s Rabaa square five years ago, when the Egyptian army fired on demonstrators, leaving 800 dead in an act described by Human Rights Watch as a crime against humanity. Photo: Reuters

Mary Fitzgerald

It was one of the largest killings of demonstrators in a single day in recent history. It began just after dawn prayers one August morning five years ago this week when Egyptian security forces stormed Cairo's Rabaa square and another square named Nahda nearby.

It ended hours later with more than 800 protesters dead, their lifeless bodies lying in the sweltering heat. Those are the confirmed numbers.

Some estimate the actual death toll could be as high as 1,000. What happened on August 14, 2013, was a shocking turn for Egypt but it also sent a chill throughout a region that had been roiled by revolutions and uprisings since early 2011, the events some dubbed the 'Arab Spring'.

The Rabaa massacre showed what lengths military general Abdulfattah al-Sisi - now president of Egypt - and his fellow officers were willing to go to in order to snuff out any support for Mohamed Morsi, the country's first democratically elected president who had been overthrown by the military as anti-Morsi rallies peaked just weeks before. The demonstrators in Rabaa and Nahda were protesting the coup that ousted Morsi, a member of the now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood who has been in jail since.

What happened that day also marked the beginning of the most repressive period modern Egypt has known, with tens of thousands rounded up and subjected to shambolic trials or simply disappeared in the years that followed.

Dublin teenager Ibrahim Halawa, then only 17, was arrested along with his sisters at another anti-coup rally two days after the Rabaa killings. The Halawa sisters were released shortly afterwards but their brother was only freed last October.

"The Rabaa massacre was a horrific turning point for human rights in Egypt," Najia Bounaim, North Africa campaigns director for Amnesty International, said this week. "Over the past five years human rights violations by Egyptian security forces, such as carrying out enforced disappearances and extra-judicial executions, have occurred on a scale never seen before."

Egypt's new atmosphere of repression and fear is anchored in a host of new laws that have gutted civil society, all but rendered non-governmental organisations and independent media obsolete, and sent more than 15,000 civilians to be tried in military courts. Forced disappearances and deaths in detention have become all too common as have reports of torture and sexual assault by the authorities.

Among those languishing in prison are journalists and photographers who, in documenting the truth of what happened in Rabaa, challenged the official narrative.

Writing in 'Time' magazine this week, photojournalist Mosa'ab Elshamy paid tribute to his detained colleagues and recalled what it was like to bear witness to the carnage that day: "Five years on, I remember it all, even when I try not to. The public applause and approval of a coup. The hysteric calls for blood and the loss of rationality and moderation. And then the violent dispersal of two long-held pro-Morsi sit-ins [Rabaa and Nahda]…

"Eventually I found solace in being aware of the impact [my] images have had, no matter how small. There is an alternative narrative of the massacres: that it was an act vital to the stability of the state. But the work of journalists that day helped to provide a narrative that combats that approach. That is no small thing in today's world. The deaths cannot be forgotten."

A Human Rights Watch investigation released a year after the massacre found security forces had openly fired on peaceful protesters at least six times while clearing Rabaa and the other square. "The killings not only constituted serious violations of international human rights law, but likely amounted to crimes against humanity, given both their widespread and systematic nature, and the evidence suggesting the killings were part of policy," it found.

The advocacy organisation this week called for an international investigation into the mass killings, noting that not one member of the Egyptian security forces has been prosecuted for involvement in the massacre.

The chances of any being held accountable are slimmer than ever with the passing last month of a law that essentially grants military officers immunity from prosecution over the violence that occurred between July 3, 2013 - when Morsi was overthrown - and January 2016, unless the army's highest council allows for it. For the families of those killed, the prospect of justice looks very remote.

In the meantime, outside Egypt the massacre is remembered by what has become known as the Rabaa sign: a four-fingered gesture used by figures including Turkey's president Recep Tayyep Erdogan and British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn.

"Without justice, Rabaa remains an open wound," Sarah-Leah Whitson of Human Rights Watch said this week. "Those responsible for the mass killings of protesters shouldn't count on being able to shield themselves from accountability forever."

Irish Independent

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