It has been one year since the August 14, 2013 Rab’a Square massacre in Egypt, when the Egyptian police and army opened fire on demonstrators opposed to the military’s July 3 ouster of President Mohamed Morsi. Using tanks, bulldozers, ground forces, helicopters and snipers, police and army personnel mercilessly attacked the makeshift protest encampment, where demonstrators, including women and children, had been camped out for over 45 days. The result was the worst mass killing in Egypt’s modern history.
The government’s systematic effort to obscure what took place, beginning with sealing off the square the next day, has made it difficult to come up with an accurate death toll. But a just-released Human Rights Watch report, based on a meticulous year-long investigation, found that at least 817 and likely well over 1,000 people were killed in Rab’a Square on August 14.
The report contains horrific first-hand accounts. One protester recalled carrying the dead, piles of them. “We found limbs that were totally crushed. There were dead people with no arms, obviously a tank ran over them. Imagine you are carrying piles of bodies, it is something you can’t imagine. Even the bodies that you are carrying, you carry an arm of a person, alongside the leg of another person.”
A student from Cairo University recounted that the ground was a “sea of blood” and how she watched the bleeding protesters in horror, “knowing that I was not able to do anything besides watch them die.”
A doctor described the scene at the mosque in the square: “I have never seen anything like what I saw when I stepped inside. The entire floor was covered in bodies. To slow down the decomposition, people had put ice around the bodies. But the ice had melted and mixed with the blood, leaving us wading in blood and water.”
Human Rights Watch’s executive director, Kenneth Roth, and the director of its Middle East and North Africa division, Sarah Leah Whitson, had planned to be in Cairo this week to release the report, but were held at the airport and denied entry into Egypt.
The systematic and intentional killing of unarmed protesters is a crime against humanity and those responsible should be investigated and held accountable. At the top of the chain of command during the Rab’a massacre was then-Defense Minister Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who orchestrated the military overthrow of democratically-elected Morsi. But neither Sisi nor any government officials have been prosecuted for the killings. On the contrary; Sisi has managed to usurp even more power, becoming Egypt’s president via rigged elections.
Since the massacre, Sisi has overseen a year of intense government repression that has included the arrests of tens of thousands of people, including Islamists and leftist political activists. More than 65 journalists have been detained and some, like three Al Jazeera journalists, have been sentenced to 7-10 years in prison. Egypt’s criminal justice system has become a cruel joke; sentencing 1,247 people to death in trials makes a mockery of the word “justice”. In many cases defendants were not brought to their trials and lawyers have repeatedly been barred from presenting their defense or questioning witnesses.
Amnesty International has documented the sharp deterioration in human rights in Egypt in the past year, including the surge in arbitrary arrests, torture and deaths in police custody. Amnesty says torture is routinely carried out by the military and police, with members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood particularly targeted. Among the methods of torture employed are electric shocks, rape, handcuffing detainees and suspending them from open doors.
Gen. Abdel Fattah Osman, who heads the media department at the Interior Ministry, denied the accusations of torture and rape in prisons and declared that “prisons in Egypt have become like hotels.”
I had a minor taste of this regime’s “hospitality” when I attempted to enter Cairo on March 3, 2014 as part of a women’s peace delegation. I was stopped at the airport, detained for 17 hours, and then thrown to the ground and handcuffed so violently that my shoulder popped out of its socket. Instead of allowing me to go to the hospital to have my arm reset, as the doctors insisted, I had my scarf stuffed into my mouth, was dragged through the airport and deported to Turkey. I was never given any explanation as to why I was detained, attacked, arrested and deported. To this day, months later, the pain in my arm is a daily reminder of the thugs who run Egypt today.
While the global human rights community has watched in horror as the basic rights of Egyptians have been torn asunder, some regional governments, particularly Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, have embraced Sisi and are providing billions of dollars of support. Perhaps this is not surprising, given that they are autocratic regimes that want to stave off democratic change in their own countries.
But what about the Western nations that pride themselves on their democratic values? European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton criticized the use of force by the military-backed government, but later assured Sisi that the EU would provide 90 million euros worth of financial assistance. And in December 2013, she even took her family on a Christmas holiday to Luxor, meeting with Egypt’s minister of tourism just a few weeks after dozens of peaceful protesters were killed.
The US case is similar. According to US law, a coup is supposed to have consequences. Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, who wrote the legislation, said, “Our law is clear: U.S. aid is cut off when a democratically elected government is deposed by military coup. This is a time to reaffirm our commitment to the principle that transfers of power should be by the ballot, not by force of arms.”
The US government refuses to even obey its own laws, which would entail cutting the $1.3 billion to the Egyptian military. Too much is at stake for powerful interests:
- The US wants Egypt to fulfill its commitment to the 1979 Camp David Accords, which ensures Egypt’s complicity in the Israeli occupation of Gaza. This complicity became clear during the latest Israeli attack, where Sisi helped squeeze the Palestinians by closing off the border between Egypt and Gaza.
- The US wants to ensure priority access for US Navy ships to the Suez Canal, as well as the flow of oil and gas through the canal.
- “Aid” to Egypt is really a subsidy for US weapons exporters. Most of the money never gets to Egypt but goes to powerful U.S. military contractors such as General Dynamics and Lockheed Martin that make the tanks and fighter jets that get sent to Egypt (whether or not the Egyptian military wants the equipment).
When Secretary of State John Kerry visited Sisi on June 22, he announced that the US would release $575 million of the $1.3 billion. He told Sisi, “I am confident that we will be able to ultimately get the full amount of aid.” And now Kerry is strengthening Sisi’s hand by making him a key player in the ceasefire talks between Israel and Gaza, despite the fact that Sisi has been an enemy of Hamas—a group he considers too closely linked with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.
On this terrible anniversary of the Rab’a massacre, Egyptians are still mourning the dead, nursing the injured and crying out for help from the prisons and torture chambers. But the “Western democracies”, dancing with the dictator, have turned a deaf ear to their cries. That’s why activists the world over are marking the occasion by showing solidarity and by calling on their governments to break ties with Sisi’s regime.
Medea Benjamin is the co-founder of the peace group CODEPINK and the human rights group Global Exchange. She was brutally assaulted by Egyptian security guards at the Cairo airport while trying to enter the country in March 2014.