The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A year ago, Egypt carried out a massacre on the scale of Tiananmen Square

A photograph taken on Aug. 14, 2013 shows a man grieving as he looks at one of many bodies laid out in a makeshift morgue after Egyptian security forces stormed two huge protest camps at the Rabaa al-Adawiya and Al-Nahda squares where supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi were camped in Cairo. (Mosaab el-Shamy/AFP/Getty Images)
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Erin Cunningham, my colleague in Cairo, wrote on Tuesday about an important new report from Human Rights Watch, published a year after Egyptian authorities moved in to brutally disperse protest camps occupied by supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi, who was backed by the Muslim Brotherhood. "The systematic and widespread killing of at least 1,150 demonstrators by Egyptian security forces in July and August 2013 probably amounts to crimes against humanity," Human Rights Watch said in a press release.

Since the massacres of last year, Egyptian authorities have arrested thousands more people. Journalists, including foreigners, have been jailed on charges of sedition. The general who unseated Morsi,  Abdel Fatah el-Sissi, has become president.

As Cunningham reports, Egyptian authorities have dismissed the meticulously documented, 188-page report as "negative and biased." The government even blocked Ken Roth, Human Rights Watch's director, from entering the country to present his organization's findings. "No one from Human Rights Watch had ever been barred from Egypt, even during the darkest days of former President Hosni Mubarak's rule," Roth wrote Tuesday in an op-ed in Foreign Policy, which labels the crackdown on protesters in and around Cairo's Rabaa al-Adawiya Square on Aug. 14, 2013 as "Egypt's Tiananmen."

The protesters had been camped out in Egypt's capital for over a month following the military's decision to abruptly oust Morsi. Morsi and his Islamist-dominated government had been heavily criticized for their poor governance and attempts to consolidate power, and the military pointed to millions protesting against Morsi's rule as justification for the move. In hindsight, though, it looks more and more like a coup.

The following are some excerpts from the Human Rights Watch report, titled "All According to Plan."

As with the Tiananmen Square [in China, 1989] and Andijan [Uzbekistan, 2005] massacres, the precise number of protesters killed in the Rab’a dispersal will likely never be known. The government’s systematic effort to obscure what took place on August 14, beginning when it sealed off the square the next day and continuing with its unrelenting repression of pro-Morsy supporters in subsequent months, have made it exceedingly difficult to establish the actual death toll. Based on its year-long investigation, Human Rights Watch found that at least 817 and likely well over 1,000 people were killed in Rab’a Square alone on August 14.

The rights group attempted to stitch together a narrative of what happened that day.

The dispersal of the Rab’a sit-in—a 12-hour assault lasting from sunrise to sunset—marked  the single bloodiest event in the government’s brutal crackdown on dissent since the July 3  ouster of Morsy. Police and army forces attacked the protest encampment at each of its five major entrances—two entrances on Nasr Street, two on Tayaran Street, and one on Anwar al-Mufti Street—with APCs and bulldozers and with government snipers on the tops of surrounding buildings. Thirty-one witnesses also said they saw security forces fire teargas, birdshot, or live ammunition from helicopters hovering over the square. Security forces besieged demonstrators, leaving them without access to safe exit from the first minutes of the dispersal until the very end of the day, including for severely injured protesters in need of urgent medical attention and men, women, and children desperate to escape the violence.
Security forces failed to provide sufficient warning in advance of the dispersal. Warnings in the days ahead did not specify a date and time during which the dispersal would take place. Minutes before opening fire early on the morning of August 14, security forces played pre-recorded loops, calling on protesters to leave and identifying a safe exit, over loudspeakers near at least two of the entrances to the square. The vast majority of the over 100 witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch, however, said they did not hear the warning until after forces had opened fire. Many of those in the square only came to know of the dispersal after being awoken by other demonstrators or by the sound and smell of teargas and gunfire at the entrances to the square.

Many reports note the presence of snipers on surrounding rooftops, firing indiscriminately into the crowd. Mick Deane, a cameraman for Sky News on the scene, was killed by sniper fire. His wife, Daniela Deane, wrote movingly about his loss in The Washington Post's Outlook section this weekend. One Morsi supporter who was attempting to reach a field hospital at the center of the square described to Human Rights Watch what he saw.

I saw one or two officers on top of the military intelligence building on the northern side of Nasr Street, opposite the Tiba Mall. We call it Unit 75. Another one or two were standing on top of the interior ministry traffic building on the same side of Nasr Street as Tiba Mall. They were like snipers but they were firing randomly. They were hiding behind sandbags on top of the building. They’d stand up to shoot then hide again. They kept doing this: shoot, then hide.

The report also cites a businessman participating in the sit-in, who recounted the ordeal:

They immediately fired teargas and live fire. It was so intense, I can’t even describe it; it was not like the other times before [referring to prior mass killings], one or two at a time. It was raining bullets. I smelled the gas and immediately saw people being hit and falling down around me. I have no idea how many people were hit. We didn’t hear any warnings, nothing. It was like hell.

Egyptian authorities at the time pointed to the presence of armed fighters among the protesters as the reason for the violence. "But that does not begin to justify the security forces' slaughter," argues Roth. The report also suggests police and security forces set fire to the main medical center at Rabaa and attempted to obscure the extent of the carnage in the days that followed. Bodies were conveyed hastily to makeshift morgues in mosques. One eyewitness described the scene to Human Right Watch:

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 in the mosque had put ice around the bodies. But by the time we arrived the next day, the ice had melted and mixed with the blood, leaving us wading in blood and water.

What's chilling is the lack of conversation about the events of the past year, both internationally and domestically, where a significant portion of the Egyptian public reviled Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood and its role in mainstream political life. The United States, which has long supported the Egyptian military, has cautiously accepted Sissi's rise. Two weeks before the killings at Rabaa, Secretary of State John Kerry described what was taking place in Egypt as a "restoration of democracy." Now many critics, including Roth, suggest Sissi's regime may prove more autocratic than even that of Mubarak, who ruled for more than three decades.