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‘Turning Point’: What Happened During Egypt’s Rabaa Massacre 10 Years Ago?

Ten years ago today, Egypt saw what has been described as one of the darkest and deadliest days in its modern history, when hundreds were indiscriminately killed during protests.

Human rights organisations and activists have decried a lack of accountability since, as some of the authorities who ordered the Rabaa massacre remain in power.

So, what is the Rabaa massacre, what was the context a decade ago, and what has happened since?

What is the Rabaa massacre?

Ten years ago, tens of thousands of Egyptians were out in the streets and city squares to demand the reinstatement of the country’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi.

The president, an Islamist affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood organisation, had come to power less than a year earlier but was removed after a coup spearheaded by the military leader – and current president – Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

On August 14, 2013, as the protests had entered their sixth consecutive week, thousands staged a sit-in at the Rabaa al-Adawiya Square, one of Cairo’s busiest thoroughfares, as they had for more than a month.

But that morning turned out to be different, as a policy shift appeared to take place after weeks of pressure from military supporters and Morsi’s opponents for a strong response.

Egyptian forces used armoured vehicles and bulldozers, in addition to ground troops and snipers on rooftops carrying live ammunition, to attack the square from all sides and close off safe exits, according to witnesses and human rights organisations.

A similar violent approach was used to shut down another sit-in at al-Nahda Square, and both instances turned bloody.

How many people died?

Human Rights Watch (HRW) conducted an investigation that documented 817 people being killed during the Rabaa dispersal alone and said additional unidentified bodies and missing individuals mean the death toll was likely above 1,000.

The organisation also documented at least 87 killed in al-Nahda Square, which it identified as only one of several other high-profile gruesome incidents since the start of July 2013, each of which had resulted in security forces killing dozens of protesters.

Why did the army use lethal force?

Security forces are documented to have used lethal force indiscriminately against largely peaceful protesters after little to no warning and are also suspected of setting fire to a hospital and a mosque near the square at the end of the day.

Human rights organisations found evidence of a very limited number of guns, Molotov cocktails and rocks being used by people who had been present at the sit-in.

But the numbers do not correspond with the scale of force used by security forces and do not support claims by government officials that the use of force came in response to violence by protesters.

What is Egypt’s ‘decade of shame’?

After the massacre, the government formed an official fact-finding committee to investigate potential human rights abuses. Another quasi-official council also released a report a year later.

Findings indicated that security forces used excessive force in Rabaa and that hundreds were killed – although the numbers were lower than those found by human rights organisations.

However, not a single official or entity has been held accountable, forces that cracked down on protesters were rewarded, and a monument was erected in the centre of Rabaa Square to honour the police and the army.

A number of human rights groups and politicians have criticised other governments, including the United States, for failing to address el-Sisi’s human rights record as they deal with the president.

In a statement on Monday, Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s research and advocacy director for the Middle East and North Africa, described the last 10 years in Egypt as a “decade of shame”.

“The Rabaa massacre was a turning point following which the Egyptian authorities have relentlessly pursued a zero-tolerance policy of dissent,” he said.

“The lack of a robust and coordinated response by the international community to the Rabaa massacre has allowed Egyptian military and security forces to get away with mass murder quite literally.”

According to Amnesty International, the human rights situation in Egypt has significantly deteriorated in the past decade, including through continued crackdowns on street protests, arbitrary detentions, unfair trials and enforced disappearances.

The London-based organisation has also condemned hundreds of executions, death sentences and torture to repress dissent, attacks on independent journalism and freedom of expression, a shrinking civic space, and discrimination.