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Worse Than Tiananmen? 1st Anniversary of Egyptian Army Killings of 800+ Anti-Coup Protesters

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Image Credit: Human Rights Watch

One year ago today, Egyptian forces opened fire on a sit-in at Rabaa al-Adawiya Square in Cairo. Tens of thousands of people had camped in the square to protest the ouster of democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi. Over the course of a single day, in what became known as the Rabaa massacre, Egyptian forces killed at least 817 people. Now, Human Rights Watch has unveiled a new report that concludes Egypt’s actions likely constituted a crime against humanity, one of the worst violations of international law. The report puts the massacre on par with China’s infamous massacre of unarmed protesters at Tiananmen Square. We are joined by Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth, who, along with Middle East Director Sarah Leah Whitson, attempted to enter Egypt and present the group’s findings earlier this week, but was detained and turned away. We are also joined by Dr. Abdul Mawgoud Dardery, a former member of the Egyptian Parliament with the Freedom and Justice Party, the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm, which has just been dissolved by a court. Dardery left Egypt after the coup and is now living in the United States. And we are joined from Cairo by Democracy Now! correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: One year ago today, Egyptian forces opened fire on a sit-in in Rabaa al-Adawiya Square. Tens of thousands of people had camped in the square to protest the ouster of democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi. Over the course of a single day, in what became known as the Rabaa massacre, Egyptian forces killed at least 800 people.

AMY GOODMAN: Now Human Rights Watch has unveiled a new report that concludes Egypt’s actions likely constituted a crime against humanity, one of the worst violations of international law. The report puts the massacre on par with China’s massacre of unarmed protesters at Tiananmen Square. In a video produced by Human Rights Watch, witnesses described the carnage of that day.

MOHAMED TAREQ: [translated] I tried to help whoever came back. I had Pepsi-Cola, which I poured on the faces of those affected by gas. I was shot in the face more than once with birdshot. It hurt, but I could handle it. Right after that, I was hit by live rounds, live bullets indeed. They entered my arm and in my chest—two in the chest, one in the arm.

MOAZ ALAA: [translated] Two men stood to my left and right. They both fell. I was left in the middle. I was shocked. People were dying all around me, and there was nothing I could do.

AHMED: [translated] Bullets were flying at this one man, and you couldn’t see where they were coming from. Then he took a bullet, and it was clearly over. He was dying.

ENAS: [translated] I left the first floor, and there was blood on the ground. All the stairs were—I felt I was swimming in blood. Even the footprints, as I went up the stairs, were visible in blood. I kept taking the stairs, one after the other. The scene was the same—injured people on the floors—until I got to the last floor, the sixth floor, expecting there to be fewer people. The smell of blood was terrible. While going up those stairs, I felt like I was at the butcher’s. The smell of human blood is truly terrible.

MOAZ ALAA: [translated] There was a man who had been shot in the stomach. He was clearly injured. His stomach was spilling out—his intestines, I think. The soldier came and stepped on his legs. He continued hitting him, kicking him and beating him with his gun. He hit him with the gun in his face and kicked him where he was wounded, so that he bled until he died.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Human Rights Watch documented the killings of at least 817 people from the dispersal of the Rabaa sit-in alone. At least 87 more people were killed on the same day in the dispersal of another sit-in at al-Nahda Square.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined now by Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth, who attempted to enter Egypt earlier this week to present the group’s findings, but he and Middle East Director Sarah Leah Whitson were detained and turned away, for the first time in more than two decades for Kenneth Roth going to Egypt.

We’re also joined by Dr. Abdul Mawgoud Dardery, a former member of the Egyptian Parliament with the Freedom and Justice Party, the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm, which has just been dissolved by a court. He left Egypt after the coup, is living here in the United States. Most of his colleagues are in prison.

And with us in Cairo, where we’ll begin, is Democracy Now! correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous. Sharif, talk about the significance of this day.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, Amy, as you mentioned, this was one of the worst incidents of violence in modern Egyptian history. For me as a reporter, I’ve been to several conflict zones for the past several years, and it was a day of the most concentrated violence that I have witnessed as a journalist, a very difficult day. And it certainly had the feel of a war zone, being in Rabaa. There was the sound of machine-gun fire everywhere. There was tear gas wafting in the sky. There were snipers on rooftops, people being shot while trying to run out of the square. Inside the medical facility inside Rabaa was a scene of mass grief and mass death. There was bodies being brought in almost every minute, people shot in the head and the chest. The wounded were being brought in. It was extremely hot, because the windows were closed to prevent the tear gas from coming in. The floor was almost slippery with blood. And it continued for a number of hours, and it was really a very difficult scene to witness. We saw protesters, people there, begin to write phone numbers of their loved ones on their arms, expecting that they would be shot or mortally wounded and writing down the number in felt pen on their arms for people to call if they were struck down. And the next day, hundreds of bodies were brought to a nearby mosque, the Amin mosque. And we saw—I counted at least 240 bodies in that mosque alone. It was also very hot, and family members and relatives were bringing in blocks of ice and placing them on the bodies to try and stave off the decay. The whole area really smelled of death.

And, you know, Rabaa was really—the attack on Rabaa marked the beginning, I think—or the end of the ability to have real mass mobilizations in Egypt. We’ve seen repression and crackdown in Egypt by successive regimes, by the Mubarak regime, by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, by the Muslim Brotherhood, as well. But the scale of this was really very, very different. And it was made possible by really a months-long dehumanization campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood, calling them sheep, portraying—you know, talking about them, as Egyptians and the Muslim Brotherhood, as an alien force. And this was really whipped up by a sycophantic media, both state and private media. During the Rabaa sit-in, they were portrayed as having scabies, and just kind of like a process of dehumanization. And there was two massacres before, on July 8th and on July 27th, when scores of people were killed, and this really laid the groundwork, allowing this massacre to happen, this scene of mass killing.

And what was most difficult, really, to witness was that after leaving the square and witnessing all of this, to be greeted by cheers of applause outside, and there was very little coverage, both in the media or recognition by society at large, by the majority of society, of what had happened. And it continues to this day. We see, you know, one prominent TV presenter the other day on his show called for the president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, to name August 14th as a day of national celebration, as some sort of victory over the Muslim Brotherhood. The prime minister at the time, Hazem Beblawi, has said that he has no regrets about the decisions he took and that he would make the same decisions again. And we’re seeing today protests, scattered protests, by supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and other people to commemorate the occasion. They’ve been quickly quashed by security forces, which are out in full force today. Tahrir Square, there are police in balaclavas stationed, there’s army APCs. I believe two people have been killed. Dozens have been arrested. Also, a police sergeant was reportedly shot this morning in Helwan. So, the violence continues to this day.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch, the importance of being able to not let the world forget what happened a year ago? You said that this was one of the world’s largest killings of demonstrators in a single day in recent history.

KENNETH ROTH: Yeah, in fact, it probably was the largest. I mean, the numbers typically attributed to the Tiananmen massacre or the Andijan massacre in Uzbekistan were, say, 400 to 800. Here, Human Rights Watch has the names of 817 victims in Rabaa Square, and we say that the likely total count number is above a thousand. So this was a crime against humanity, as Amy said. And it is a crime that simply should not be forgotten. I mean, the government is doing everything it can to sweep it under the rug. They literally built a monument in Rabaa Square to honor the police and the military. They gave bonuses to people who participated in the shooting. They have not cooperated with any of the international or domestic investigative attempts. And, of course, they blocked me at the airport when I tried to go into Cairo to present the report. So, the government is just stonewalling. It’s important that we press forward and that if Egypt itself won’t investigate a crime of this magnitude, we’ve called on the international community, particularly the U.N. Human Rights Council, to launch a commission of inquiry to begin the formal evidence collection needed for later prosecution.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re naming names of those responsible.

KENNETH ROTH: We certainly are. In fact, I mean, two of the names—well, one is currently President Sisi, who a year ago was the defense minister and the deputy prime minister for security affairs. He was overall in charge. The person who was designated to run the operation was the still current interior minister, Mohamed Ibrahim. And what’s interesting is, Minister Ibrahim, going into the massacre, anticipated thousands of dead. As your correspondent just noted, there had been a couple of incidents just in the prior month, where, you know, 90 protesters were killed here, 60 there, so they knew that violence was going to be a real risk. They nonetheless—despite what happened, Ibrahim said, the day after, everything had gone exactly according to plan. So they knew there was a potential for violence. They actually covered up the—knowing that it would be possible to conduct a forensic investigation of the square, they distributed ammunition somewhat randomly so it would be difficult to trace it. They doctored the ammunition release logs. So, they went in with a guilty conscience, covering up, and they have just stood by and blatantly obstructed any investigative effort since then.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, we’re also joined by Dr. Abdul Mawgoud Dardery. You were a member of the Egyptian Parliament for the Muslim Brotherhood, have fled Egypt since then. Could you talk about the impact of that massacre and of the general crackdown on the life of the ordinary Egyptian citizens?

ABDUL MAWGOUD DARDERY: Let me first thank you both for having me here. I’m really happy that you’re paying special attention. This is a call for American media, in general, and world media to pay special attention to what Kenneth Roth characterizes—Human Rights Watch—that it is the world’s largest killings of peaceful demonstrators in a single day. We’re talking about about 800, and we have estimated about 1,600, and the number can be more than that. So, what we see in Egypt now is a crime against humanity, almost a full year.

And I do apologize for Kenneth Roth for not being allowed to enter my home country. I, myself, cannot go back to Egypt, so it’s not just you. There are many Egyptians who cannot go back to Egypt. There are many Egyptians who were killed in the past year, thousands of Egyptians. We’re talking about thousands—not just numbers. Those people are human beings. They have families. They have children. They have life to live. Many of them are members of Parliament. Many of them are university professors, medical doctors. They’re all in jail now.

And that is the tragedy that Egypt is going through now. What we have is a criminal system, is a coup regime that is trying to suffocate democracy and freedom, all types of freedom. You demonstrate, most likely you either get killed or you end up in prison. If you move from one place to another, most likely they’re going to arrest you. If you speak your mind or even if you use a sign, a simple sign that commemorates the massacre that is called Rabaa, a sign—children who used this sign ended up in jail.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re holding up a hand with four fingers raised.

ABDUL MAWGOUD DARDERY: With four fingers. That is the symbol of the Rabaa. That is—Rabaa means “four.” That’s the name of a woman where the square—the massacre took place. And this woman is known to be a highly spiritual woman who stood against oppression, who was very spiritual and decided not to accept oppression by any means. So, Rabaa is very important. Rabaa represents freedom, resistance, peaceful resistance.

This day commemorates two things. Number one, that hundreds of people got killed in that day, for nothing but their standing up for democracy and the will of the people to be respected. Number two, we’re determined. Egyptians are determined, both inside the country and outside the country, not to accept the status quo, not to accept the state of fear, the police state coming back. We will never accept this. We will continue. Today, people are killed, and people are imprisoned. We will continue this march towards freedom, peacefully, until democracy is back, until freedom is back, until social justice and human dignity are back to Egypt.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Dardery, did you know people who died on that day, one year ago today, at the Rabaa massacre?

ABDUL MAWGOUD DARDERY: Yes, I do. I know many. Many of them are close friends. I know, in my hometown, at least three: Ustaz Amar [phon.], Ustaz Jalali [phon.]—and those two, the first one was working as a supervisor in ancient antiquities. He was a great man. He was so humble. He was so serving the people. If you saw the funeral, thousands of people went behind him, because that person gave a lot to the community in [inaudible]. But there is a special friend, who was my office manager when I was running for office in the Parliament. His name is Ahmad [phon.]. Ahmad was a young man who loved Egypt and loved democracy. He wanted to live in a democratic. He did not have a job, so he was working in my office assisting me and assisting the needy Egyptians to provide them services. He lost his life in that day, left his wife and one kid. He was just married a year ago.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And could you talk about when you left Egypt, under the circumstances in which you left, and the difficulty now for you and many former Muslim Brotherhood members from being able to return?

ABDUL MAWGOUD DARDERY: You see, for decades, as Egyptians, we wanted to live in a free society. We wanted to enjoy the freedom that all other people enjoy in the world. We wanted to live—that’s why we went to the streets during Mubarak’s regime. And we went to the streets for four principles: economic progress, freedom, social justice and human dignity. We were able to get this. And then we wanted to follow a democratic alternative. We were moving surely, but slowly, towards a democratic alternative in Egypt.

Unfortunately, the deep state, the state of Mubarak, in addition to the corrupt officers of the military, corrupt officers of the police, corrupt judiciary and corrupt state officials, decided to end up the democratic process. So they made the coup. They kidnapped the president, killed thousands of people, imprisoned thousands. And now they’re suffocating all types of freedom.

So, when the coup took place, it was shocking. It was really shocking. I was in an interview with CNN, and they told me, “What are you going to do now?” I said, “We will do what Americans did: Give me liberty, or give me death. I will never accept to live under a police state again. I cannot afford living in a state of oppression—not only me, millions of Egyptians.” Another unique characteristic of the Egyptian society, for the past 400 days, Egyptians have been going to the streets, day in and day out, and they know they’ll either get killed or get imprisoned, but they’re determined to remain peaceful, and they will continue their march until democracy is back in Egypt.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask Kenneth Roth: In your report, the Egyptian government, the coup government, of course, has said that at the square they fired in self-defense, that there were people that were armed at the square that day. Could you talk about what you found in your investigation?

KENNETH ROTH: Yeah, you know, it’s important to talk about the Egyptian government’s defense, because it is just so flimsy. Yes, there was violence in the square. We describe that in detail in the report. On the periphery of the square, there were young men throwing Molotov cocktails, and the police themselves report having found 15—one-five—firearms among the tens of thousands of people in the square.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: You estimated there were about 85,000 people there that day?

KENNETH ROTH: Well, it’s hard to know the exact number.


KENNETH ROTH: But it was a very large number. There were eight police officers killed at Rabaa Square that day, compared to 817 or more demonstrators killed. Now, what we found is that rather than the police, you know, focused and targeting on people who posed a threat to them, they were basically firing indiscriminately at protesters. There were snipers on the roofs who were simply picking people off. At one point, they were shooting anybody who entered Rabaa Hospital, in what became known as “Sniper’s Alley.” Other times, police on the ground were just firing indiscriminately into the crowd. They were standing on top of armored personnel carriers, clearly not worried about their own welfare, because there wasn’t a serious threat. They were just getting better aim at the crowd. So, the argument that this was self-defense is just wrong. And in fact, although your correspondent talked about this being a war, it’s not a war. This was just one-sided repression. And the standard is, you can use lethal force only if there’s an imminent lethal threat. That was flouted here.

AMY GOODMAN: On Tuesday, State Department spokesperson Marie Harf was questioned by a journalist about the Human Rights Watch report and whether its findings would impact the U.S. decision to resume hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid to Egypt.

REPORTER: In light of this initial read of the report, is there any misgiving or regret on the part of the U.S. government for releasing some of the military aid that was held back a year ago?

MARIE HARF: No. Look, we have made decisions about our policy towards Egypt based on what’s in our national security interests, as they have made some limited progress—some—I would stress “some” and “limited.” But we have made decisions based on what’s in our security interests and how we can help, but we’ve also, as we’ve said, held some things back, even today, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s State Department spokesperson Marie Harf. The United States announced in April it would resume $650 million in military aid after it was suspended last year following President Morsi’s ouster. Your response, Ken Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch?

KENNETH ROTH: Yeah, I mean, Secretary of State John Kerry periodically visits Cairo, and each time he’s there, he talks about the progress being made toward democracy. Now, I don’t know what glasses he’s wearing, but no one else sees that progress. And in essence, you know, what the State Department spokeswoman was saying just there is that because Egypt is an important security ally in fighting terrorism and helping Israel fight Hamas, the U.S. government has basically decided to sell the Egyptian people down the Nile. You know, here’s a government that has committed one of the—in fact, the biggest massacre of demonstrators in recent history, and Washington says, “Eh, who cares? They’re an important security partner. Here, have, you know, a few gazillion dollars.”

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Dr. Abdul Mawgoud Dardery, you are now living here in the United States. Your reaction to the failure of this democracy to stand up for democracy in Egypt?

ABDUL MAWGOUD DARDERY: Yeah, sometimes I don’t call it “failure.” I call it betrayal, for the American ideals of supporting the rule of law, of supporting democracy. I remember when President Barack Obama visited Cairo and gave that wonderful speech. We did believe his hypocrisy—I mean, his democracy speech in Cairo. It is very unfortunate that the United States administration, the EU also, betrayed their own ideals of supporting democracy, human rights and rule of law. Aid should not be used to kill Egyptians. That is wrong. That is not going to help us building better understanding and better relations. On the long run, we’re losing, everyone. Egyptians are being killed by American aid. Americans are paying money for dictatorship. And that should be the old day’s policy, not the new day’s policy. Today’s is a day of democracy, is a day of freedom. This cannot be accepted. It should not. I believe once Americans know what their government is doing, they’re not going to accept it. And it is very unfortunate that this is happening now.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I wanted to ask you if the—when Sharif was mentioning earlier the people who cheered as he came out of the square during the massacre that day, do you, in retrospect, think that maybe the Brotherhood, when it was in power, may have committed some errors that allowed other sectors of the population to turn, to back the generals?

ABDUL MAWGOUD DARDERY: You see, the Freedom and Justice Party is a political party. All political parties make mistakes. Who doesn’t? President Obama’s party makes mistakes. But does this allow us to go and kidnap President Obama, kill thousands of Americans and imprison thousands? Mistakes are to be corrected in a democratic process. In a democracy, you correct mistakes by voting the people out, not by killing them.

What is happening in Egypt, there was a media propaganda, fascist propaganda, that some of the TV are calling—they would like to kill Americans if they find them in the streets of Cairo. That is the fascists, not only against Egypt. Egypt has become now one of the worst, if not the worst, country in relationship to foreign visitors. So that’s why the tourism industry is almost collapsing in my hometown, Luxor, and the rest of the country. So what you see in Egypt is a scenario of lose-lose. Everyone is losing—the military is losing, the Egyptian people are losing, Europe is losing, America losing—unless democracy is back. It is the only alternative for Egypt. And the military has to stay out of power. It has to stay out of the political sphere.

AMY GOODMAN: Sharif, I wanted to ask you about the latest news in Egypt. On Wednesday, former Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak spoke before a Cairo court. It was the first time he’s spoken publicly since his ouster. He denied he ordered the killing of protesters in the 2011 Tahrir Square uprising.

HOSNI MUBARAK: [translated] Muhammad Hosni Mubarak, who is before you today, did not order at all the killing of protesters, did not order at all the killing of protesters or the shedding of the blood of Egyptians. And I did not issue an order to cause chaos, and I never issued an order to create a security vacuum.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Hosni Mubarak, the former Egyptian dictator, his voice being publicly heard for the first time now in three years. Sharif Abdel Kouddous, can you talk about the significance, as you stand in Cairo?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, as you said, Amy, these were the first comments that millions of Egyptians saw from Hosni Mubarak since his ouster on February 11th, 2011. He appeared in court many times before, televised, but wasn’t speaking. He would be this supine figure lying on a cot in a jail cell—I’m sorry, in the defendant’s cage. But yesterday he appeared sitting up, and he gave this lengthy address where he really took the opportunity to highlight, you know, his so-called achievements during his 30-year rule and spoke very, very briefly about the charges in the case, just that one tiny clip that you mentioned, but really spent most of the time talking about—giving a political defense of his three-decades rule.

And, you know, this was beamed to millions of Egyptians in their homes on TV. This is not—this comes in stark contrast to the trials against activists and protesters and Muslim Brotherhood members and supporters who have been jailed in really sham trials, no real opportunity to defend themselves, and have been locked up in very, very harsh, draconian conditions, deplorable conditions. We’ve had deaths in custody, up to 80 deaths in custody over the past year. Mubarak has been in police custody, but he’s in a hospital room overlooking the Nile.

And he didn’t really answer much of those charges, but he—the verdict is supposed to come down on September 27th in this case. This is a retrial of a 2012 conviction he got for being complicit in the killing of protesters in 2011, in the uprising against his rule. If he is found not guilty, he does not walk free. He’s still serving three years on a separate embezzlement case.

And I just want to quickly just go back to address some of what the other guests were saying. I think it’s important to remember that—

AMY GOODMAN: Sharif, we have 20 seconds.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: The scale of the repression we’re seeing right now is unprecedented, but there were serious violations by the Muslim Brotherhood that cheered police crackdowns on protesters against their rule, as well. But the scale of what we’re seeing now is completely different, and it’s really trying to stamp out the surge of collective empowerment that coursed through the citizenry over the past—for that brief period for a couple of years, and it made the government really afraid of the people instead of people being afraid of the government. And that’s what the main aim is for this repression that is being really flaunted by the government right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Democracy Now! correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous reporting to us from Cairo, Egypt. I also want to thank our guests here in New York, Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch—we’ll link to their report. He was denied entry into Egypt this past week as they tried to present it to the Egyptian people. And Dr. Abdul Mawgoud Dardery, a former member of the Egyptian Parliament with the Freedom and Justice Party, the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we go to New Mexico to an immigration jail. Stay with us.

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