By Amr Khalifa
The Cairo sun beat down mercilessly upon landing at the airport; it would not compare to the emotional assault of a 40-day odyssey into the valley of the divided: Egypt.
What made the trip eventful was not that it was a return home. Though the nation was not at war, per se, this was still the dominant tone at nearly every gathering I was privy to during that time.
A coup had unfolded only three weeks before, but cognitive dissidence played its hand, and through this writer’s eyes the tumult was still categorised as a revolutionary coup. Every hour of every day was a learning experience of the sort that few wish to partake in. My logic behind this trip was that the psychological, political and intellectual pressures of Muslim Brotherhood rule have taken such a hefty toll on the family unit, indeed on most of the nation, that only the warmth of the motherland could rectify the imbalance. Few assumptions have been more incorrect. By the time the plane was boarded to return stateside, Egypt would experience its most violent summer in modern history. When all was said and done, families and friends torn asunder would be a glaring understatement. To become a stranger in the motherland is a death for those who employ both mind and heart. One year later, Egypt remains divided as ever. Looking back we should have all seen it coming.
The taste of a truly delicious meal was lingering when the question was posed to the family gathered: “Who would be going to the demonstration?” Several days prior to my arrival, Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, the driving force behind the coup, had emotionally reached out to the nation and asked them to “come out, come out and remind the whole world that you have a will and resolve of your own”. The reason for the massive gathering, it would quickly become clear, would be nothing so innocent. Al-Sisi wanted a green light for the elimination of the Muslim Brotherhood and he got it. On that preceding night, the heart said to go, the journalist within wanted to observe history but the mind was hearing a terrifying tonality. At a post dinner tea, there was only one tenor to political discourse: bloodlust. Over and over again, people spoke with a united voice: we almost lost the nation, they (the MB) should pay, enough blood – but ironically enough, no hesitation in spilling MB blood to “avoid” bloodshed. That tidal wave of anger did not welcome or invite any dissenting voices – no matter the rhetoric. So the demonstrations, complete with air force flyovers, green lasers, and millions in the large cities’ streets came and went without my attendance. That would become one of the few situations where pain was avoided during that historic summer.
But this was a relentless summer in its ability to uncover how divided the nation had become and how this phenomena had slithered its way into Egyptian living and dining rooms. “Roll over them with tanks for all I care.” Life has come to a stand-still in the centre of Cairo. “This needs to stop now,” said one of the guests at a dinner I attended. One year later that sentence rolls over me as would that tank. But that is a guttural reaction to the invisible elephant in the room: a military fascism that overwhelmed Egyptian society in reaction to its religious counterpart. After a short time spent at contemplation it was clear: one did not justify the other. Nonetheless, this is where Egypt found itself: squarely in the crosshairs of a fascism that justified, accepted and encouraged any state violence.
In very short order, one mini massacre followed another. Imagine if 50 Frenchmen were gunned down by the French government? Think what would happen if, on an early morning, New York police gunned down 98 Americans? Do you think a Japanese administration can withstand a similar slaughter? But this is precisely what happened in Cairo multiple times prior to the Rabaa massacre. Every justification in the book was found for the state, the police, the army and military police. The deep state fully understood the concept: enough hate had been pumped into the Egyptian sphere, because of numerous mistakes made by a largely incompetent Morsi administration and an incessant, pro-state propaganda machine, that a carte blanche to decapitate the Muslim Brotherhood had been granted.
On the evening of 13 August 2013 one final attempt was made, by fate, to rescue this odyssey from utter failure: the car I was in was on its way to Sharm El-Sheikh, Sinai. Languid turquoise seas, with its attendant accoutrement, lay in wait with open arms. Upon sunrise body and sea would meet, so the thinking went. It would not be.
My first interaction with the Rabaa massacre was a soul deflating picture of an Egyptian mother hovering over her 20 year old’s lifeless body. The caption, on Twitter, read “Mohamed was not a terrorist, he was my childhood friend. Mohamed was no terrorist”. If you looked closely enough you could see a tear gently rolling down the author’s cheek. The Rabaa dispersal had begun and Egypt would never be the same. Ever. Egyptians had been told, over and over, the Rabaa encampment, with nearly 20,000 occupants, on a daily basis, for over five weeks, contained terrorists and heavy weaponry. Public opinion was primed for a massacre and many called for it. The Mohameds of the world, a young man who was shuttling medication into the pharmacy on the Rabaa grounds, were seen by many as an unfortunate blip on the radar.
In the coming hours only two things followed: bodies and bullets. Photographs of burned bodies in tents started populating social media. The increase in body count didn’t jump by the single digits but rather in the tens with every updated figure by both western media and Egyptian Ministry of Health. Rabaa square wasn’t the only scene of bloodshed in Cairo or Egypt. No corner was spared: on the other end of the capital there was a reactionary bloodbath at a police station in Kerdasa which left eleven police officers dead after Islamists used RPGS and machine guns. At the Nahda sit-in, the gunfire was non-stop and the deaths mounted to exceed 100 at the end of the police siege of the centrally located sit-in near Cairo University. But the massive massacre at Rabaa was the focal point of “the largest massacre in modern Egyptian history”, as HRW would later call it. Video emerging from the location showed huge bulldozers marching into the camp ground as both the tent encampments and the large mosque were on fire, bodies lay strewn. It was a symbolic scene of a nation on fire.
The Egyptian regime systematically, as it had previously, sought to tamp down death toll figures to the 650 range. In the end, most western news media employed a figure of near 1,000 on that historic day, as recorded by highly respected independent watchdog WikiThawra. The Islamist camp continues, one year later, to speak of significantly higher numbers nearing 2500 dead. Regardless of which figure you find closer to reality, the days to come saw more significant bloodshed in central Cairo with Muslim Brotherhood supporters jumping off 6 October Bridge to avoid death by police machine guns. That day over 150 would be dead. Dead also would be any humanity, in most circles. The reaction of the vast majority when confronted by the carnage, stunningly, was “Only one thousand killed? It could have been much worse,” or a variation of “is that all?”
This perspective, while lacking in both humanity and empathy, became the governing norm and for mainstream media facts became a troubling afterthought. Within the same week, after the massacre, [Minister of Interior] Mohamed Ibrahim gave a press conference where he said, without equivocation, that in the large Rabaa encampment that there were only “19 automatic rifles; one hand gun; 29 shotguns; 11 handmade weapons ; 2622 bullets; 55 Molotov cocktails”. Consider for a moment that Rabaa Square and environs, on any given Friday by conservative estimate, contained hundreds of thousands of demonstrators. Even on a weekday, and the dispersal occurred on a Wednesday, there was an estimated 20,000 Egyptians sitting in the camp and quantity of weaponry seized still vastly paled in comparison to the overwhelming deadly force used against largely unarmed civilians.
For a nation that prides itself on religious piety, whether Christian or Muslim, one thing is sadly clear: that façade was blown to smithereens by the Rabaa massacre. Deconstruct metaphysically or existentially any Holy Book you wish but the three major religions, Christianity, Islam and Judaism, all have respect of human life as a core practice and religious outlook. Rather than denounce this massacre, however, the religious establishment added fuel to highly combustible scenario. “Hit them as hard as you can. Do not let your soldiers die at the hands of these Kharijites. Have no fear, religion is with you, Allah is with you, His messenger is with you, the believers and the people are with you. Paradise is for those who kill them,” said Ali Gomaa, the former Grand Mufti, a leading Muslim authority, to the soldiers before they went in with full force. Note the extremism of both message and language, there can be no doubt that there is an overlap with ideological content of jihadi groups. In Gomaa’s world the “enemy” is a heathen and the reward is paradise for those who take their life. If a picture is worth a 1,000 words then these words are surely worth, at least, 500.
In the end, the estrangement of one Egyptian in the motherland may not amount to much when counterweighted against the ultra-nationalistic fervour sweeping Egypt. But the day will come when Egypt looks itself in the mirror and sees a stranger. It is only through that masochistic process of self-examination that Egypt will remove itself from its current black hole.
Amr Khalifa is a freelance journalist recently published in Ahram Online , Mada Masr and Muftah