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Why Egypt’s military orchestrated a massacre

A poster of deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi lies on the ground as military police stand outside the burnt Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque on the morning after the clearing of a protest camp in Cairo. (Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters)

The Rabaa massacre of Aug. 14, 2013, was Egypt’s Tiananmen Square. Egyptian security forces killed at least 817 people on a single day at Rabaa al-Adawiya Square alone, and more than 1,000 when including the number of casualties across Egypt. It was the biggest mass killing of civilians in modern Egyptian history. The butchery did not take place under the cover of darkness, or in a remote corner of the country, but in broad daylight in Cairo. I was one of a number of journalists and observers who attended the sit-in of supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi at Rabaa the night before the massacre, and witnessed the violent dispersal of the smaller sit-in at al-Nahda Square on the morning of Aug. 14.

The killing was done by Egypt’s Central Security Forces and Special Forces in close coordination with the Egyptian Armed Forces, with few if any reported defections or refusals to open fire. Security forces began firing on civilians around 6:30 a.m., and over the course of 12 hours they continued emptying rounds of live ammunition into crowds of men, women and children who they had entrapped, despite repeated promises of a “safe exit.” This was not a brief killing spree that ended as suddenly as it began, or the panicked response of threatened conscripts in the fog of battle. One year later, not a single official has been held accountable.

The military’s behavior at Rabaa seemingly poses a sharp contrast with its allegedly more peaceful behavior in response to mass protests in January 2011. Rabaa and Tahrir Square each, in their own way, challenge prevailing theories of military behavior during periods of mass defiance. When a regime confronts a massive, anti-regime uprising, its survival often depends on whether it maintains control of the coercive apparatus. Will security forces open fire and suppress the rebellion? Or will they refuse? This is often treated as a dichotomous variable: Soldiers either defend the regime or defect from it. In such analyses, scholars usually begin by pinpointing the specific moment during a regime crisis when the high command must choose sides, sometimes referred to as the “end-game scenario.” Factors commonly believed to influence the outcome of this decision-making process usually include internal variables such as the level of the military’s professionalism, patronage and the ethnic or sectarian composition of the armed forces.

The shortcoming of such analyses, in my assessment, is fourfold. First, a dichotomous variable can account for neither the complex reality of mass uprisings nor the sometimes ambiguous behavior of soldiers. Second, scholars often conflate two issues and assume that if the armed forces refuse to suppress the opposition, that they have effectively joined the opposition. Third, focusing on one specific moment in time (i.e. the “end game”) does not allow us to understand the subsequent trajectory of events. And finally, attention has focused too much on analyzing internal aspects of the armed forces, rather than their relationship to society.

When applied to the so-called Arab Spring, scholars have argued that in Egypt and Tunisia, the army “defected” from the regime, forcing Hosni Mubarak and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali to step down. Some scholars argue that Egypt’s generals opted to “back the uprising,” or interpret the soldiers’ behavior as the outcome of a decision “to side with the nonviolent movement.” Other scholars at least partially attribute the successful ousting of Mubarak to the military’s decision “not to shoot” at protesters, or the coercive apparatus’ “failure to repress.” In Syria and Bahrain, in contrast, the armed forces for the most part “defended” the regime, allowing Bashar al-Assad and King Hamad to remain in power. In Libya and Yemen, a fracturing of the armed forces took place, with some officers defending and others defecting.

While this argument may seem plausible, it is also problematic. Rather than failing to suppress the uprising – and thereby defecting from the regime – it would be more accurate to say that the Egyptian military failed to prevent the repression of protesters by other branches of the coercive apparatus. During the first week of the uprising against Mubarak in early 2011, the military stood by the regime as hundreds of people were killed. Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, who was minister of defense at the time, attested to the collaboration between the Ministry of Interior and the armed forces. One week into the rebellion, the army declared, “To the great people of Egypt, your armed forces, acknowledging the legitimate rights of the people … have not and will not use force against the Egyptian people.” However, neither before nor after this statement did the army prevent violent attacks on peaceful protesters, as during the Battle of the Camel on February 2.

There is a similar pattern during the Rabaa massacre. The atrocities unfolded at the intersection of Nasr and Tayaran streets. An army base is on one side of the intersection and a Ministry of Defense building is on the other. As documented by a recent report by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), military forces were “present in the vicinity of Rabaa” on Aug. 14. Furthermore, the army opened its military base to snipers, who shot at people from the rooftop of the base. Soldiers drove the bulldozers that cleared everything in their path, allowing the gunmen to advance on the protesters. Army helicopters hovered overhead. Soldiers were stationed at exits and entrances and prevented protesters from leaving the area that was being attacked. Finally, the entire operation was overseen by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who at the time was minister of defense, general commander of the armed forces, chair of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and deputy prime minister for security affairs.

Of course, Rabaa was not the only post-coup massacre, it was just the biggest, and perhaps the most premeditated. As Sisi and others have attested, the violent dispersal of the sit-in was thoroughly planned weeks in advance. The high death toll was not the result of poor training or unexpected circumstances. On the contrary, as Minister of Interior Mohamed Ibrahim boasted, everything went “according to plan.” On July 5 and July 8, at least 66 people were killed during clashes at the Republican Guard Headquarters. During these events, the army played a more active role in the killing.

How do we explain the behavior of the Egyptian military on Tahrir in January 2011 and in Rabaa in 2013? Scholars have developed theories that the more institutionalized an army is (as opposed to an army organized along patrimonial lines), the more similar soldiers are to the protesters in terms of religious, ethnic and sectarian identity, and the larger the crowds, the less likely the soldiers are to open fire on protesters. Eva Bellin’s widely-cited article “Reconsidering the Robustness of Authoritarianism in the Middle East” argues that the behavior of the Egyptian army in January 2011 illustrated this point. But then why did this same army oversee a massacre in August 2013? To explain this, we need to dispense with the notion that the Egyptian army ever really defected from the regime and with the dichotomous variables that have been used to explain military behavior. During the 17 months that the SCAF was in power, a number of secular activist groups emerged that began to challenge the military on several fronts, while the Muslim Brotherhood largely abstained from anti-SCAF protests. The Port Said massacre of Al-Ahly football fans and the Maspero massacre of Coptic Christians were both directed against people contesting military rule. After Morsi’s ouster, the Rabaa and Nahda sit-ins emerged as the biggest challenge to the coup government’s consolidation. While these protests were smaller than the demonstrations in early 2011, they were still massive, with an estimated 85,000 protesters at Rabaa alone, and lasted much longer than the unrest in 2011.

Rabaa illustrates that it is problematic to devise theories or typologies about military behavior based on a single moment in time during a single, allegedly all-decisive regime crisis. After all, revolutions are not decided on a single day, but play out over the course of weeks or years. Soldiers may obey orders one day, but disobey the next. Or they may never be forced to decide whether they will gun down their compatriots, as long as other branches of the coercive apparatus do the dirty work for them. Whatever institutional rivalries may exist between the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Defense, when it comes time to kill they seem able to work together quite well, as at Rabaa. In January 2011, the Egyptian army proclaimed it would not raise its weapons against civilian protesters, but in August 2013 it oversaw one of the biggest mass killings of protesters anywhere. Future research on the Egyptian military would do well to account for both.

Amy Austin Holmes @AmyAustinHolmes is an assistant professor of sociology at the American University in Cairo. She is the author of Social Unrest and American Military Bases in Turkey and Germany since 1945 (Cambridge University Press, 2014) and is currently working on a book on the military and mass mobilization in Egypt.