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Rabaa Massacre: A Decade After Egypt Slaughtered 900+ Protesters, No One Has Been Held to Account

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As Egyptians mark the 10th anniversary of the Rabaa massacre, we speak with human rights advocate Hossam Bahgat about how the mass killing shaped the country in the ensuing years. On August 14, 2013, Egyptian security forces opened fire on a sit-in where tens of thousands of people had camped out in Cairo to protest the ouster of Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. An estimated 900 protesters were killed, but no one has been held responsible over the past 10 years. The minister of defense at the time, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, has since risen to the presidency, ruling Egypt for nearly a decade as a close U.S. ally while jailing tens of thousands of political prisoners. “The massacre established a new normal” and inaugurated “a decade of shame,” says Bahgat, founder and executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, which has obtained a leaked copy of a government report on the massacre that implicated Egyptian authorities in the mass killing and found most victims were civilians.

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

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We begin today’s show in Egypt, where human rights advocates are marking the 10th anniversary of the Rabaa massacre. It was August 14th, 2013, when Egyptian forces opened fire on a sit-in where tens of thousands of people had camped out in Cairo to protest the ouster of Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi. Human Rights Watch estimates over 900 protesters were killed in what the group has described as the, quote, “worst single-day killing of protesters in modern history.” No one has been held responsible over the past 10 years.

The minister of defense at the time was Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who has ruled Egypt for nearly a decade and is a close U.S. ally. Under el-Sisi, Egypt is now jailing about 60,000 political prisoners.

This is Democracy Now! correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous in 2013 on our live broadcast the day after the massacre, describing what he saw.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Yesterday was, you know, a day of violence and chaos and bloodshed, the most violent episode that I’ve witnessed as a reporter in Egypt for the past two-and-a-half years. Walking around Nasr City, which is the northeastern neighborhood in Cairo where the Rabaa Al-Adawiya mosque was located, you could hear the crackle of machine-gun fire intermittently in the air. There was tear gas on the outskirts and in the sit-in that mixed with black smoke rising from tires set alight by the protesters. …

You know, the Interior Ministry had spoken for a couple of weeks about the plan to disperse the sit-in, that would go in stages and first involve surrounding the protesters and then a gradual escalation. But by all accounts, all the witnesses I spoke to have said the attack started sometime around 6:30 and came in very hard with tear gas, and the casualties started pouring in, most of them with live ammunition, very soon after that.

The scene inside the main medical facility in Rabaa was extremely tragic. People were being brought in, the dead and wounded, every few minutes. The floor was slippery with blood. The windows were closed to prevent tear gas from coming in, and it was almost unbearably hot. And the dead were everywhere. In one room alone, I counted 24 bodies just strewn on the ground, packed so closely you couldn’t even walk in; on another floor, another 30; on another floor, another eight. Doctors were overwhelmed with the casualties. So, it was a very difficult situation and one that I think will have deep implications for Egypt’s future, not just for years, but for decades to come.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Democracy Now! correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous in 2013 on our live broadcast the day after what has become known as the Rabaa massacre.

For more, we go to Cairo, now 10 years later, to speak with Hossam Bahgat, the founder and executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, EIPR, based in Cairo. They have obtained a leaked copy of a government report on the massacre that implicated Egyptian authorities in the mass killing. It accused security forces of, quote, “indiscriminate and disproportionate use of live ammunition” and concluded, quote, “The largest number of Rabaa victims were innocent civilians who were most likely peaceful demonstrators.” Hossam Bahgat also worked as an investigative journalist for the independent outlet Mada Masr. He’s been banned from traveling outside of Egypt and had his personal assets frozen. We interviewed him last at the U.N. climate summit in Sharm el-Sheikh. He couldn’t leave Egypt, but he was able to address the folks that were there.

Hossam, it’s great to see you again. Can you talk about the significance of what this report is, who did this report within the Sisi government, and what exactly it found?

HOSSAM BAHGAT: Thank you, Amy. It’s good to be back.

This is a very significant document, not just because of the conclusions it reached and the recommendations that it put forward, but because it is actually the only official inquiry that has been conducted for the last 10 years into this massacre. Obviously, in 2013, after the military takeover, the military authorities at the time did not have any interest in launching this inquiry, but for six months they were under a lot of pressure to do something, not in order to establish accountability but in order to avoid an international investigation or universal jurisdiction accountability or personal liability.

So, at the time, they set up this official commission, and it had six members, most of them judges. Most significantly, the security general who was appointed to that committee to lead its day-to-day work and take responsibility for the drafting of the report is currently President Sisi’s minister of justice.

Of course, because of the damning conclusions of the report, although the report does fault both sides and does go out of its way to also blame the protesters, blame the leaders of the protest — blame, basically, everyone — it still could not avoid really reaching the conclusion that there was no safe passage, that this was an overwhelmingly peaceful protest, that the majority of those killed were peaceful protesters, not armed elements as the government has been claiming for the last 10 years, and that the shootings were not precisely aimed and at times really were indiscriminate and definitely disproportionate with the threat to life, even if it were true.

But the most important and the most damning conclusion there is that the committee actually heard official testimony from the field commander of the operation, who at the time was the director of special operations in the Interior Ministry, and he gave official affidavit, where for the very first time he says on record that peaceful alternatives to dispersing the sit-in were considered and abandoned before the operation. This is the first time that we get this official admission. And they actually identify things like, you know, cutting off electricity and water or allowing protesters to leave the protest but not to go back in, etc. And in the end, they say that they chose to send the anti-riot forces and to implement the dispersal in one day, as opposed to the three-month plan that had been considered and disregarded. This is the most important conclusion of this report.

And the report, of course, was never published, for the last nine years now, since it was handed over to President el-Sisi, who, you know, is pictured receiving the report. And we’re not surprised, because the key recommendation in that report is calling for a full judicial investigation. This is a committee that was formed only with a very limited mandate of collecting evidence, hearing testimonies, analyzing events. It did not have the right to subpoena evidence or state officials. And it did not have the authority to refer cases to trial or assign responsibility. And therefore, their conclusion was that this is not enough, our work is not enough, there needs to be a full judicial investigation. This is the recommendation that was never made public. It was actually omitted from the executive summary that was published nine years ago. And now we know why.

The regime, of course, has had 10 years to hold people to account. Instead, it did not even question a single officer, soldier or state official as suspects in these killings. And instead, it arrested, prosecuted and convicted over 700 of those protesters that survived the massacre, the vast majority of whom are currently in prison still, 10 years later, serving life sentences, with at least 12 people on death row having lost their final appeal.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Hossam, could you elaborate on the enduring effects of both the crackdown and, as you point out, this reigning culture of impunity whereby no one has been held accountable? Amnesty International, as well, has said that “The last 10 years can only be described as 'a decade of shame.' The Rabaa massacre was a turning point following which the Egyptian authorities have relentlessly pursued a zero-policy of dissent.” So, if you could talk about that, the continuing crackdown on dissent and, in fact, its intensification, after the massacre 10 years ago?

HOSSAM BAHGAT: Of course. I mean, again, as we last discussed when we were in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt has been going through this unprecedented human rights crisis. And you can really trace the origins of this crisis to the day of the massacre. The massacre established a new normal, where it’s not just that, you know, hundreds of people could be killed within 12 hours in broad daylight in the presence of local and international media without a single person being held accountable, but it’s also that it happened with popular support. And this is, really, for me, for us, the reason this has been a decade of shame, is that, overwhelmingly, there was no outcry. There was a — you know, there was no active involvement from the population, but there was certainly a degree of acceptance, admittedly, resulting from months of dehumanization and propaganda campaigns. But, ultimately, you know, we did not say, “Not in our name,” because it was a moment when people decided that it’s OK for their rights and freedoms to be suspended and that the leader knows best and that we’re going to let him drive.

And now the Egyptian people are, again, overwhelmingly, waking up to the results of this bad deal, poisonous deal, that they made, because they allowed one person to rule for 10 years with no free press, with no opposition parties, no parliamentary oversight, no judicial oversight, no public demonstrations on the streets and no civil society. And look at where it got us now: the worst economic crisis in Egypt’s history, with no prospect for improvement, with actually expectations for things to get worse, with a leader that is refusing to take responsibility for any of it, and increasing daily suffering. So, for the first time, today, people are waking up to the fact that they agreed to the terms of this deal and that it was to their detriment, not just to the detriment of the victims that were most immediately targeted.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Hossam, how have people in Egypt responded to this report? And also explain, how is the position — what is the position now of members of the Muslim Brotherhood or people who previously supported Morsi?

HOSSAM BAHGAT: The findings of the report came as a shock, and for the last three days, of course, it’s been the topic of discussion on social media, because, I mean, media, traditional media, and even websites have been completely, you know, nationalized by Sisi. And it’s coming as a shock for particularly two segments of the audience. First is people who really believed the propaganda 10 years ago and, you know, stopped thinking about the massacre and its repercussions for the last few years and are only now able to read what happened, not from reports of independent journalists or civil society investigators, but from a report of a government-appointed committee with a staff of current judges led by the current minister of justice.

But the second segment that is really acting in complete shock, but also anger and outrage, is young people. And this is a very young society, where, of course, we have a vast majority, demographic majority, of people who are under 30. So, many, many people on social media are just simply too young to remember, did not watch the news coverage at the time, did not know what happened. They know about the events as the Rabaa events; they don’t even have a grasp of really what actually happened. So, again, they’re acting with the natural shock, because, frankly, you know, we were there, and we went through this and observed it, and even to us it came as a shock to read these official testimonies.

The prime minister at the time, Hazem Beblawi, is actually giving — has given testimony in that report, where he says, again, on the record, that the number of those killed that day was below their expectations, the expectations of the planners of this dispersal. So, it’s really hard for the government now to stick to its false narrative for the last 10 years that it only acted out of necessity after facing fire from armed protesters.

To your question about where the Muslim Brotherhood is right now, many of the senior leadership are, of course, in prison or serving sentences. But the entire leadership structure of the organization is now based out of Turkey and Europe and elsewhere. But, of course, the young, the rank-and-file members of Muslim Brotherhood and beyond, people who are just either supporters of former President Mohamed Morsi or simply accused of being so, are now in the thousands in prison, with the most conservative number being, you know, around 30,000 of them.

AMY GOODMAN: Hossam, we just have a minute, but two quick questions. The people who are on death row now, if you can give us some sense of who they are? And you, yourself, I mean, President Sisi may be reconsidering keeping you in Egypt, but your own circumstances, for people to understand, something we came to understand well in Sharm el-Sheikh, that you cannot leave the country — based on what?

HOSSAM BAHGAT: Well, I’ve been, together with other colleagues from the human rights movement, under investigation for 10 years now, over 10 years. And for the last seven years, as part of that investigation, as a precautionary measure, I have been placed under an open-ended travel ban, with my assets frozen and my bank account frozen since then. Again, as I said before, I consider myself lucky, still, that this is the small price that I have to pay. But I am also in no rush to leave Egypt. Of course, I mean, I can’t deny the influence, the impact of these unfair measures against me and my colleagues, but at the same time, you know, we’ve been around, and, you know, we’ve changed four administrations and presidents now, and we’ve outlasted them, so we know that this will ultimately come to an end. And if it doesn’t, we want to have contributed to bringing this to an end.

AMY GOODMAN: Hossam Bahgat, I want to thank you so much for being with us, founder and executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, EIPR. He is based in Cairo. He has also worked as an investigative journalist with the independent media outlet Mada Masr. And you can go to democracynow.org and see our interview in the offices of Mada Masr when we were in Egypt.

Coming up, the U.N. Security Council has met to discuss the Azerbaijani blockade of Nagorno-Karabakh and calls for the immediate reopening of the Lachin corridor to allow for humanitarian aid for the roughly 120,000 people suffering severe shortages. We’ll speak with the former International Criminal Court prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo, who says the blockade amounts to a likely genocide. Stay with us.

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