Remembering, contesting and forgetting: the aftermath of the Cairo massacres

The Egyptian Government’s anti-terrorism measures in the wake of the Rab'aa mosque massacre continue to colour people’s daily lives with the suppressed trauma and memory of these events.

Leila Zaki Chakravarti
2 March 2015
Mosque and street scene

Rab’aa Mosque today“The mosque evokes death, bloodshed and tangible grief.” Standing in the hot Cairo sun, looking at the everyday scene outside the Rab’aa el Adawayya mosque, my friend’s words at first strike me as incongruous. But almost immediately my mind flashes back to the same spot a year ago, where I had stood gazing with horror at the blackened facade of the burnt out shell left by the Egyptian Army’s violent clearance of the huge pro-Morsi protest camp which had grown up around the mosque - which I wrote about on openDemocracy at the time, and the sheer scale and brutality of which Human Rights Watch has since documented in detail.

Up until the August 2013 massacre, the Rab’aa mosque had been a landmark and community hub at the crossroads of two major arteries in Cairo’s sprawling northern suburb of Medinet Nasr (Victory City). Its brilliant whitewashed walls had always stood out from the drab concrete and brick of the surrounding tower blocks – and also from the ‘army standard’ ochre wash of the many military installations in the area. The throngs of locals streaming in and out of the mosque’s open, airy arches, and the gates of the hospital building within its walls, likewise contrasted sharply with the military sites’ blank, forbidding walls and guarded entry points.

The mosque, the fire and the damage done to it as a collage

Before and afterNow, a year later, the scene seems barely recognisable from the scorched battlefield I had stood in. There is barbed wire, and lines of military tanks, positioned in selected locations to ward off trouble and protect military installations. The streets surrounding the crossroads have also been given a facelift with more streetlights, large advertising billboards and plants to add a splash of colour to the location. Walls protecting military buildings, once littered with revolutionary graffiti, seem to have been hurriedly washed and waiting to be given a fresh coating of colour.

A clear, clean concreted public space, alongside an image of some graffiti.

Graffito (“The crimes of the Military – Mohamed Mahmoud & Rabaa”) from a pro-Morsi protest camp cleared from the squareAn eerie silence now lingers at the major junction where the mosque stands. To make sense of the overwhelming feeling of lifeless ‘greyness’ I am experiencing, my gaze steadies on the signage with which the Military Engineers Corps have marked the completion of their ‘renovation’ of the destroyed mosque - intended, in the words of the army’s Facebook spokesman, to “restore the aesthetic and civilised image of Egypt’s streets after they were vandalised at the hands of terrorists and those who abuse its security and stability.” The mosque’s original signage had been unashamedly shaabi (working class, populist), mounted above its main entrance. My memory of how its garish ‘movie billboard’ lettering somehow remained shining through the soot of the smoked out wreckage helps me recognise its replacement as ‘military standard’ in terms of its placing (embossed directly on – not raised above - the building’s walls) and its standardised, metallic lettering. My eye is then drawn to the colours in which the mosque’s walls have been repainted, the brilliant whitewash and bright green of the original replaced with an ochre wash and brown highlighting. With a sinking heart, it dawns on me that the Rab’aa mosque has been given a new frontage uncannily similar to that of the nearby Republican Guard Officers Club (which was fiercely protected during the time of the protest occupation). It is clear that the Egyptian military has claimed the ‘protest mosque” as its trophy, and rebranded it in the same architectural uniform as all other military sites across Cairo and the length of Egypt, its gates now as firmly and forbiddingly closed as all the others.

 scorched, flanked by military, cleaned-up

Rebranding a community hub as a military buildingThe friend from the neighbourhood who is driving me around reflects on the locked gates and doors to the empty, silent (though previously always open and bustling) mosque:

‘It’s as if Ramadan never happened this year. It was stripped of any meaning. A void. No festive weight or substance. Listen - do you hear the call to prayer? That’s all that’s left of the Rab’aa we knew. Now you never see the neighbourhood’s residents going there for their regular prayers as before: who can live with all that grief and bloodshed? What happened is still raw - even though everyone gets on with their business as usual.’

Hassan (as I will call him) turns his thoughts to the night of the massacre, taking place in the streets under the apartment block that has been his home for fifteen years:

‘From 4.30 am on that fateful day, we heard military planes flying low. The tear gas was overpowering, we had to close the shutters and put the AC on. We didn’t want to leave Mom alone in her flat nearby, so we had to find a way to get there quickly and get her here. When we reached her, we found that one of her elderly neighbours, a woman in her 70s, had taken a bullet to her neck as she was closing her window. She’s on the 7th floor, so it must have come from one of the Army snipers who were raining down bullets. There was much panic as there were no ambulances working. Mercifully, a medical student living next door rushed to help, and she survived. It went on like that all day. When it was declared safe to venture out, the scale of destruction and the stench made me think we had been transported to Palestine, or Syria. Was this really our neighbourhood? It was the worst 24 hours of my life. ’

He goes on to reflect on what he sees as the unjustified killing of innocent victims:

‘Many reasons are given for why the violence was necessary. The most common is that protestors were armed and it could have got nasty. I’m baffled by this allegation. During the fad (the slang word by which the clearance is invariably referred to), protestors were running for their lives. Where was the arsenal we were given to believe had been hidden in secret chambers and dark tunnels under the mosque? And again, why shoot the protestors in the chest and head? This troubles me. I mean, if you shoot a man running for his life in the leg, you take him out of combat but with a decent chance of saving his life. However this kind of free-for-all shooting, where you target everything or anything that moves, has always been alien to how we see ourselves as a society. And now it won’t stop here. The massacre has been a game-changer - from now on it’s a case of il-dam il-masri rekhis (Egyptian blood is cheap). My thoughts keep coming back to this fundamental revelation.’

Driving me back to his family flat, Hassan gives thought to practicalities of clearing a protest site.

‘It’s still a valid question why other alternatives were not considered. A first step might have been using water cannons to force out the families trapped in the protest compound. Why did they not arrive with a fleet of buses ready to transport the protestors elsewhere? Why did the special forces not use the intelligence they claim they had to dig out the so-called ‘hidden arsenal’ and make arrests? Yet local eyewitnesses have told us that the special forces only allowed two exit points from the mayhem: one where you’d get arrested if you came out alive, the other straight to the morgue.’

I have known Hassan’s family for well over 15 years. Resident in Nasr City for almost 20 years, his father was a GP in the army – a job that not only allowed the family to travel and live in a range of military posts in Europe, but also provided access to the privileges attached to the well-rewarded professional ranks in the military. These include free housing, the right to buy property at subsidised rates in an array of residential compounds, access to large supermarkets and shopping arcades designated as military outlets, and also to health care and recreational facilities such as sports clubs – in short, a comprehensive welfare system for the members of Egypt’s military establishment. The range and scale of the military’s welfare provision is not only unmatched by any other state apparatus, but in the current bleak economic climate is also considered more secure, stable and ‘respectable’ than the affluent and ostentatious lifestyle choices available to the country’s newly enriched civilians.

It might be thought to follow that any Egyptian family with such connections would be robust supporters of the new military-led Government of former Field Marshal Mohamed Abd el Fatah el Sisi, and its promises for a more secure, stable and generally ‘better’ Egypt. Yet the conversation round the family lunch to which I am treated back in the safety of Hassan’s flat leaves me in no doubt that, following the ousting of the elected Muslim Brotherhood Government, their former pride in the military has turned to disillusionment.

Hassan and his younger brother Hussein, the family’s two sons, are both currently lawyers – and both are, within the wall’s of Hassan’s flat, openly critical of the reluctance of the Egyptian military to embrace a civilian and more democratic rule. Yet Hassan’s wife and mother are staunch Sisi supporters, and see Egypt’s 2011 ‘Arab Spring’ uprising as a ‘waste of life and resources’. For an ordinary Egyptian family that routinely keeps a low profile about its allegiance with the military, and refrains from expressing any political or religious preferences, a surprisingly spirited discussion develops over the generously prepared lunch table. The two pro-Sisi women face bitter opposition from other family members to the doubts they are prepared to express over the ‘authenticity’ of the events of January 25, 2011 leading to the ousting of the seemingly impregnable President Mubarak. The ambiguity unravels itself in such questions as: was 25 January (2011 – the ousting of Mubarak) a ‘real’ revolution or a staged ‘Photoshop’ (a local term to mean ‘fake’, a simulacra of a revolution funded by Western governments) revolution? Was 30 June 2013 (the day the military ousted the subsequently elected President Morsi) the start of the ‘real’ revolution - or of a military coup? Was the final 18 August clampdown on the Muslim Brotherhood protest camps murder? or a necessary measure in ‘Egypt’s fight against terrorism’?

Manal, Hassan’s sister-in-law, a secondary school teacher makes clear her acceptance of the spirit of the times:

‘Hussein and Hassan were frequent participants in the milioniyya (million-strong protests) of Tahrir Square. Their engagement with protestors on Fridays following noon prayers was experienced as a kind of solidarity, a one-ness. For them Egypt was not just a geographical location we happen, by some freak coincidence, to be part of. It was a grander entity - and much larger than the bank balances or the economic power of the super-rich who parade themselves in our country. Through these crowds, the essence of what Egypt is, and what it could achieve, was more defined. No barriers could limit our horizons, or the potential and possibilities lying ahead. Those moments were transformative – we saw bare courage’.

As lawyers, Hassan and Hussein regard the high turnout in Egypt’s open and free Legislative and Presidential elections of 2012 as providing shar’iyya (legitimacy) for the new Muslim Brotherhood government, in terms not only of raw numbers and percentages of votes cast, but also of a new politics that re-invented the terms of participation at grassroots level. They saw the elections as the start of a process of civil constitutional reform, mobilising the voices from the ballot as instruments of power and leverage in the bargaining that would follow with the deeply entrenched ‘Security State’. An early indication of the likely response could be seen in the way in which Egypt’s official media manipulated the term shar’iyya, deliberately conflating its meaning with the somewhat similar-sounding shar’ia (Islamic law) in order to de-legitimise the newly elected government and highlight its sectarian aspects. These manipulations helped lay the groundwork for the 30 June ousting of the Morsi government by the army.

For many of Hassan’s family members, kinfolk and neighbours in Nasr City, the claim to shar’iyya nevertheless continued to provide an explicit political stance that epitomised the Rab’a sit-in after 30 June. As Manal continues:

‘Last year we spent time in the camp set up to protect el-shar’iyya. It was the fasting month, and most days after iftar (the sunset meal that breaks the day’s fasting) we’d join the street life in Rab’a. What had started as a protest had soon grown into a good-natured, festive jamboree. We saw nothing of what the TV and some social media were describing as lavishly-funded, venal or even criminal activities. These were just rumours accentuating the politics of envy during hard times. Many of the outsiders we befriended were just simple Egyptians who came because the food and drink was free. Others were beneficiaries attached to different Muslim Brotherhood charities. A good number of familiar faces came from our neighbourhood. Others were like us, educated and relatively comfortable, who supported il-shar’iyya and joined the protest for this reason. The spirit of the whole surrounding community resonated with the emotional generosity of the rally.’

Lunch over, we move to the salon where through sheer habit Hassan reflexively switches on the TV, talking over it while reflecting on the mood in the neighbourhood on the first anniversary of the massacre.

‘On the anniversary of the massacre conspiracy theories ran wild. There were warnings of ikhwaan (Muslim Brotherhood) movements in our area. The neighbourhood was put on red alert, with extra army tanks arriving to block connecting roads and barbed wire rolled out to control mobility, making all the shortcuts we use exceedingly difficult. On the day we were warned of ‘World War Three’ - nothing happened. Did the ghost at the feast ever make an appearance? (He laughs silently). Doesn’t that tell you something? The media systematically presents itself in the role of a well-informed and matter-of-fact advisor. But their dramatic claims are based on inconclusive facts - so that their audience, as listeners, are metamorphosed into fearless truth-seekers outwitting ‘terrorism’ – the dangerous ‘hidden powers’. And because they confirm their prejudices, these lies have to be correct.

But there is a bigger conspiracy. This is the conspiracy of silence, and becoming complicit in the ‘anti-politics wave’ that pretends as if nothing out of the ordinary ever happened. It boils down to the internal authoritarianism endemic in our local way of thinking – what we know as centralism. It translates into siding with the more powerful for the sake of protection. If protecting one’s interests, be they economic or political, pushes us to turn a blind eye to injustices, whether small or big, who do we trust to protect our basic rights? Or are we going to live like animals – each one fighting its own corner? It is troubling.’

His voice tails away as he concludes his train of thought, ending up barely audible over the chattering TV:

‘I can’t see light at the end of the tunnel right now. I once had hopes that I could see a fairer society in my lifetime or my children’s. That possibility is now remote.’

As lawyers, both brothers helped neighbours identify relatives from the city morgue where the bodies of the massacred were taken. This sobering experience of dealing with death informs their thoughts on how the cards have been dealt. Hussein explains:

‘The worst scenario we encounter as lawyers is with the dead. A martyr was once a revered body, with kisas (civil rights) and haq (religiously imbued social rights), which made accountability a necessary term of reference. But is this still the case? If you are titkhittif (‘snatched’ ie arrested without charge and held in secret) for months on end and your family frets over finding your whereabouts using its resources to track down the missing person; or if the charges are so ludicrous that they are routinely described as il-rosheta (the ‘standard prescription’); or when the authorities turn a deaf ear to any petition required to be heard in open court; or if families who visit prisons to bring necessities such as food and drink are treated like scum - who then will continue to see the struggle for shar’iyya as a worthwhile collective cause?

The state holds the families of any activist by the scruff of their necks. Corpses are not released unless the family unconditionally agrees to sign the official documentation produced by the state. What is stated is never ‘torture’ but some dubious explanation such as (said sarcastically and more loudly) ‘suicide’. The blame is transferred to the victim, who is labelled a ‘troublemaker’ or an ‘enemy of Egypt’ who deserves everything they got. And because it goes against religion not to bury one’s dead quickly, these grieving families are coerced into the trap – even while sensing deep isolation in their bereavement. The trick works. Death in a prison cell means that the victim has no voice - and the concept of ‘victim’ is made irrelevant.’

He grows more outspoken in voicing his concerns for the future:

‘In our line of work as lawyers, we witness on a day-to-day basis the implications of 30 June. People’s rights are eroded and it’s the power of might, and fear of retribution, that gets to rule. You see it in the increased bullying and violence spreading in the street and in private lives. At the same time a general consensus is enforced which insists that the environment can be freed of chaos simply by eradicating from view a government that was unpopular because of a distinct religious group called the Muslim Brotherhood. Following this logic, people become less prepared to question how this state of affairs has come about, or the probabilities of a counter-revolution and whether a counter-revolution has taken place.

Nor are they willing to reflect on how the insistence on narrow categories of ‘us’ versus ‘them’ (the military vs the Brotherhood) is tearing us all apart to consolidate conflicting interests. This is evidenced in the vocabulary that calls any form of opposition treason, and comes with ready-made labels such as the ‘fifth column’ (reserved for intellectuals, and derived from Stalinist terminology), or the ‘sleeper cells’ (reserved for Muslim Brotherhood members keeping a low profile). In the end nobody knows who is grey, black, or whiter than white. These are issues that are still causing deep friction within families in our neighbourhood. Every family will tell you that – you have even heard some of it over our lunch here - and how friends, once inseparable, have ceased to speak.

Yet despite all this, intellectuals such as Amr Hamzawy (a politically prominent Professor of Political Science) have spoken out and actually defined 30 June a coup. What excites me is that the truth is now out. It has been spoken. So if we start to connect the dots, what’s to stop us from thinking that all the chaos that followed Mubarak’s departure was not masterminded in its detailed planning? Undermining activists, shoving them in prison cells, shooting them at point blank range and setting up 30 June as the ‘true revolution’ become staging posts in the drive to keep the army’s hold on power more or less permanently.

I am impatient with offensive remarks that Egypt is not ‘ready for democracy’, or that ‘democracy is good, but for our neighbours’, or that the activists were bribed, or that US intelligence was involved, or that disadvantaged groups were scavengers living off the benefits they could get out of the uprising as if the state is an innocent or wronged bystander. Has anyone considered what created the consensus in 2011? It is because the slogan “Eish, Horreya, Adala igtima’iyya (Bread, Freedom, Justice)” resonated. Tell me, who can beat the precision of these three simple, straight-to- the-point demands?'

Using the remote to flick through TV channels to see what else to watch, he summarises his thoughts:

‘There will come a tipping point to this charade. I don’t believe this grotesque imbalance is sustainable. They want an Egypt of the past where cracking the whip guarantees results. They lose sight of the limits and constraints of these tactics. Remember: even Morsi failed to deliver on his promises. That should serve as a warning.’

It is at this point that the room is abruptly plunged into silence by another of Cairo’s frequent power-cuts, expected to last for a couple of hours. Somehow the gloom feels appropriate.

This is the first of three related articles by the author. Articles exploring the effects of the subsequent security and media campaigns on the lives of those bound up in Cairo's vibrant informal service sector - whether as consumers or providers - will be published in March 2015.

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