August 16, 2019

“An army officer told me literally: ‘If you think you want to prove yourself a man you’ll end up with a bullet and be thrown in the garbage like the many people today whose lives ended with a bullet and were thrown in the garbage, like dogs’.”

Imad al-Din al-Sayyed, a producer at Al Jazeera, while covering the Rabaa sit-in

The bullets were flying over their heads to force them to bow to the forces breaking up the sit-in, after they were humiliated by their hopes of a free, pluralistic country. They thought that the revolution gave them a voice to say what was in their hearts, but their tongues dried up calling in distress. The dispersal of their sit-in was when escape from death led to death itself.

Date: August 14, 2013.

Location: Rabaa Al-Adawiya and Al-Nahda squares.

Event: The forcible break up of supporters of the ousted President Mohamed Morsi by the police and army after their sit-in for more than two months, protesting the Egyptian people’s demonstrations against the Brotherhood and authorising the army to retake the country once again on July 30 2013.

Dictatorship under history and memory

“The historical memory is a commodity produced by the masses in Belfast’s political culture and is written on the surrounding buildings – in the names of places, monuments, bullet holes, house debris – in choices of housing and marriage, and at almost all annual events and parades.”

Alan Feldman, an anthropologist and author of “’Political Terror and the Technologies of Memory”

The dictator builds his glory on the victories of the present before the future, surrounds himself with his supporters to create his leadership out of their blind support for him. He works tirelessly to erase the evidence of his condemnation. He uses the state institutions as marionettes moving one after the other to falsify history and write alternative myths that satisfy the ego of all those who supported and continue to support him.

History is “an objective and honest observation of events based on a professional study,” explained the French sociologist Maurice Halifax, while memory is “eclectic perceptions of the past through interactions between individuals, communities and the surrounding environment.”

Although history belongs to its makers, it is always written by the strongest party after winning its battle with its opponents. Successive Egyptian governments have monopolised history and its narration. Different laws since 1954 forbid the circulation of any historical documents in the National House except those that have been given security clearance. In addition to the lack of transparency in the policies of different governments, they do not disclose their plans and how they implement them to the public, considering themselves the guardian of the people.

Generations grew up knowing Nasser as a leader who presided over a people’s revolution against colonialism, but rare documents and evidence, and limited studies, have revealed another aspect of a regime that is a major cause of Egypt’s security grip and armed forces’ control of the Egyptian state today.

As for collective memory, it is only preserved by the interaction of individuals, which is the most difficult lesson faced by the January 25 2011 revolution. For since its inception, all forms of war have been practiced to distort it and erase it from the people’s perception, either by accusing all those who participated in it of betrayal or by blaming it for the inefficient economic failure and insecurity, or by the haunting down and imprisoning of those who participated in it, so the sharing of its story or the interaction of its members requires energy drained by the various revolution battles over the past five years.

Between history, narration and collective memory, lays captive the forcible break-up of the Rabaa sit-in. Years after the break-up, the documented facts remain almost non-existent. The state succeeded in using its various arms to conceal facts, obliterate evidence and falsify what’s remaining of the tales and testimonies carried by the eyes of those who lived the massacre and kept it alive by their insistence on commemorating its anniversary on the 14th of August each year.

Control of state organs

We will attack no matter the cost.

Medhat al-Minshawi, head and commander of the Special Forces, speaking to the Minister of Interior from within Rabaa

Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, then Minister of Defence and current President of Egypt, spent many days discussing the break-up plan drafted by General Mohamed Ibrahim, Minister of the Interior, and supervised its implementation with the leadership of Medhat al-Minshawi, President and Commander of the Special Forces in the disengagement of Rabaa square. The plan had also been approved by Adly Mansour, the interim President of Egypt after conducting various meetings with Mahmoud Hijazi, Director of Military Intelligence, Sedki Sobhi, Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, and Mohamed Farid al-Tohamy, Director of General Intelligence. Vital state agencies cooperated to implement the task of breaking up the sit-in by force.

This is in addition to the position of religious figures and official and unofficial channels that supported the break-up, and promoted it from the beginning of June 30 2013. The Egyptian media charged the people with anger towards the Brotherhood, and provided them with various justifications for the break-up and for killing the protesters, and glorified the police during and after the dispersal as heroes.

The Islamic preacher Mathhar Shaheen stated in his programme that the Brotherhood was fighting God and His Messenger and killing people, and demanded their crucifixion. Ali Gomaa, the former mufti of Egypt, also used to refer to the Brotherhood as the “dogs of hell,” and urged security personnel not to feel regret after killing the criminals in the streets, referring to the Brotherhood and their supporters. The Coptic Pope’s position did not differ much, as he thanked and praised the police and army after Rabaa, announcing his position in favour of the use of force against dissenters.

The Egyptian channels came out broadcasting hate speech to justify the breaking up of the Rabaa and Al-Nahda sit-ins. Media figure Ahmed Mousa commented on the prosecution of the Muslim Brotherhood on his show on Sada el-Balad channel: “I don’t want the law. I don’t want to hear the word law. We are a country that will not follow the rule of law. We will not work within the law.” He also hosted various artists to promote the repression of the Muslim Brotherhood as traitors, including Hani Shaker, who stated: “We need to take a firm stand against any member of the Muslim Brotherhood, whether they have committed a crime or not.”

While the vice president of the Supreme Constitutional Court in Egypt appeared on television to claim that the Brotherhood receives US funding from Obama’s brother, in the context of accusing the Brotherhood of intelligence with foreign countries, including America, Turkey and Qatar to harm Egyptian interests.

One of the first and most important steps to control people’s minds and falsify the facts is the ability to control the various state bodies, including the police, army, secret intelligence, media and celebrities and clerics. That is when the regime of July 30 succeeded vigorously, and started from that day on recording a false history that accuses the Brotherhood of treason and collaboration with foreign countries, and incites against them so that society further rejects them. Thus, the regime is able to extend its control and monopolise power by suppressing anyone who speaks for human rights or defends the January revolution that brought the Brotherhood to power. As a logical consequence, the revolution bears the legacy of the failure of successive regimes to provide a decent life for its citizens.

Blurring the truth

After the dispersal of Rabaa, the authority worked on changing the features of the place that witnessed the disengagement process, to erase the traces of blood and history which witnessed what happened. It paid EGP 90 million to renew Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque, which had housed a field hospital for the wounded and fallen during the dispersal. Authorities also built a fountain shaped like two palms holding a ball in the middle, symbolising the army and police.

It was circulated that the name of the square was changed to Hisham Barakat Square, the former Attorney General of Egypt, after his assassination in 2015, and with this the state imposed its own narrative and erased Rabaa as the slogan.

Aside from this, anyone who tried to adopt the Rabaa slogan or sign in any way was fought. Al-Ahly player Ahmed Abdel Zaher and a Kung Fu champion were suspended after they raised the Rabaa sign and the second wore a Rabaa T-shirt when he was receiving his medal. In addition, girls were prosecuted for carrying and distributing yellow balloons in November 2013 in sympathy with those killed in the Rabaa dispersal.

Human Rights Watch considered the dismissal of Rabaa “the largest mass killing of protesters in modern times that took place in one day.” Reports say that nearly 800 protesters were arrested after the disengagement, and some were executed immediately after their arrest without trial. The report acknowledged that there were instances of firearms being used by protesters, but condemned “the deliberate, lethal attacks against demonstrators most of which were peaceful.”

Amnesty International also described the break-up as “the darkest days in Egypt” and said that security forces burnt the bodies of the dead after the disengagement of Rabaa. It added in its report: “There is no doubt also that Morsi’s supporters resorted to violence after the break-up of the Rabaa sit-in, including the use of firearms, attacks on the Giza Governorate building, police stations and members of the security forces. But that does not give the security forces a green light to open indiscriminate fire on protesters as agreed.”

However, in its March 2014 report, the Egyptian National Council for Human Rights stated that during the militants’ gunfire initiative, police forces “failed to maintain restraint and disproportionately evolved in terms of the intensity of fire.” The report was limited to blaming the police for some abuses while the Brotherhood was accused of killing and torturing civilians, exploiting children and possessing weapons, in a clear adoption of the same official version of the authority on the break-up and obscuring all the features of the truth.

Imposing an official narrative and combating whatever violates it

Independent initiatives, documentaries, books, scientific research, and songs have emerged to document the Egyptian revolution and the subsequent events that have engulfed the country since February 2011, as they are all part of history. However, the scope of these initiatives and works of art and research is somewhat limited. Although it preserves the memory, it is not entirely reliable in preserving the history of the revolution, especially in light of the official version that the authorities try to impose through the various educational curricula, control of official and private channels, the promotion of works of art that share the same vision, and last but not least, the rejection and combating of informal narratives.

The public space has been marred by little freedom of movement and a lot of restrictions since July 30th. Various theaters have been closed, raids on the headquarters of civil society organisations and offices have taken place and a law prohibiting demonstrations and fighting human rights organisations has been passed. It is no longer possible to act freely, and it is no longer possible to move from one area of ​​society to another without the permission of the state.

In various attempts to document the dissolution of the Rabaa sit-in, pioneers of social media networks inaugurate from time to time a hashtag under which people post content of what demonstrators lived through in those long hours. Some publish their stories and others tell different stories of the days of the sit-in or of its break-up. A campaign called “Rabaa Story” also appeared on Facebook. The campaign is based on the compilation of videos, photos and testimonies of the sit-in and it is published on social network sites and its website in both Arabic and English.

Various tales about the death toll have emerged. The official number is 670, while the unofficial number varies according to the entity reporting it; 932 was the highest documented number. This is in addition to the lack of transparency about the plan to carry out the dispersal. All that society has is the narrative pushed by top authorities against the scattered testimonies, poor quality videos and pictures of the dead.

Suppressing opposing voices

Authorities are trying to impose their official version of the revolution through educational curricula, controlling the media, and combating unofficial narratives by suppressing dissent.

Since July 30th, more than 40,000 people have been arrested, and many have been subjected to enforced disappearance, torture and mass trials. “Judges have issued at least 547 death sentences and a greater number of life sentences as punishment for violence or political activity, many of them after mass trials involving alleged supporters of the Brotherhood and other Islamists,” a Human Rights Watch report said.

The continued suppression of dissent is the most important step in extending the regime’s control over society and the shutdown of politics in its general sense so that it can impose its official version of the revolution and the events that followed. The suppression of dissent is a policy of the state to preserve its survival, to go back in time and erase everything related to the January Revolution, and to eliminate the hopes of the young.

Some were killed and others imprisoned, many were tortured and displaced. The bodies were burned and the evidence obliterated. Not one individual was prosecuted for the break-up of Rabaa until its third anniversary. The collection of carved memories is the only weapon to fight attempts to falsify history. If it is difficult today to reveal the suffering of hurt hearts because of their loss of loved ones or their broken dreams of freedom, tomorrow the memory will gather strength and voices will speak out loud narrating what they have seen to override the falsity of history and the limitations of the state.