A year ago this week, Egyptian security forces launched the most brutal phase of their weeks-long crackdown on supporters of the then recently deposed president and leading Muslim Brotherhood figure, Mohammed Morsi. Pro-Morsi protesters, having been battling Egpyt’s then interim leader, General Sisi, for weeks, had retreated to Rab’a al-Adawiya square. There, with makeshift medical facilities available, they sought respite. But on 14 August this all came to a bloody end. Personnel carriers, bulldozers, ground troops and snipers entered the square from each of the four main entrances, launched tear gas and opened fire. At least 1,000 pro-Morsi supporters were killed over the following few hours.
All the grisly details of the Egyptian state’s brutal suppression of pro-Morsi supporters in the few weeks following the Sisi-led coup d’etat can be found in a new Human Rights Watch report, All According to Plan: The Rab’a Massacre and Mass Killings of Protesters in Egypt. That a report about Sisi’s year-old crackdown has caused such a stir now, with some seemingly surprised to learn about the extent of the massacre, is testament to what spiked identified at the time as Western commentators’ and politicians’ silence on the tyranny in Egypt. Still, HRW presents a damning picture of the actions of the Egyptian security apparatus. In the words of HRW director Kenneth Roth: ‘The legacy of the Rab’a massacre continues to cast a dark shadow over Egypt. Egypt will not move forward until it comes to terms with this bloody stain on its history.’
In an obvious sense, Roth is right. The systematic and widespread killing of those opposed to Sisi’s coup d’etat does cast a shadow over Sisi’s continued leadership of Egypt. (Although the very fact that he gained power by force ought to have been enough to set most democratic alarm bells ringing even before he began massacring opponents.) Yet there’s something almost wilfully myopic about HRW’s tale. It seems to treat the murderous brutality of the Egyptian army and police force in isolation. It’s as if the massacres of those dispiriting few weeks are being packaged up as something malign but separate from the broader context in which they took place. This perhaps explains why HRW can be so blissfully disingenuous when proferring its recommendations: the perpetrators should be punished by Egyptian prosecutors; and the international community should ensure this happens by threatening Egypt’s government with the withdrawal of aid and assistance and a trip to the International Criminal Court. That is, as HRW sees it, there is no problem with Egypt that cannot be fixed by a bit of international meddling. And then the bloody stain on Egypt’s history will be wiped clean away.
All of which determinedly misses the meaning of the massacres. They weren’t unfortunate moments of brutality ruining an otherwise well-functioning social-political arrangement. Rather, they were the consequence of a coup in which the military seized power, and, faced with thousands of supporters of the deposed but elected Morsi, sought to consolidate its incipient rule using the only real means it had at its illegitimate disposal: military might. The massacres cannot be separated from Sisi’s regime like an appendix from a HRW report; rather, they were essential to what is a military dictatorship.
And more disingenuous still, the so-called international community, really consisting of a few Western states, was not an oblivious bystander which, now it has been alerted to wrongdoing, will exercise its do-gooding will. Rather, it was complicit in the coup from the start. Fearful of the potential freedom and the democratic choices of Arab peoples, concerned that they would choose what the West deems to be the wrong leaders, and anxious in particular about Islamists, too many in the West were keen to see the downfall of Morsi, a figure who came to represent the democratic folly of the Arab Spring. The US or the UK might not have given Sisi the nod to depose Egypt’s first democratically elected leader, but they certainly smiled inwardly as the tanks rolled through Cairo.