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Human Rights Watch on Rabaa: words aren’t loud enough

When words do not align with values, any crime can be justified.

Somewhere between justifying the murder of a black man by police, the bombing of children playing on a beach, or the killing of over a thousand people in one day, the world has lost its moral compass.

Some citizens condemn the brutal violations inflicted upon ordinary lives, based on ethnicity or political affiliation, but the people’s alleged representatives, their governments, have applauded themselves or other brutal governments, offering empty justifications for other citizens to repeat.

The few governments that have objected have done so without taking steps to redress these injustices. Though they have the power to take stronger actions, which speak far louder than words, they choose words, and words that are not nearly loud enough.

Human Rights Watch released a report entitled ‘All According to Plan,’ on the events that took place in Egypt in July and August of 2013, and the Egyptian response has been that of a totalitarian state. High-ranking HRW officials were detained for twelve hours before being denied entry into Egypt in order to launch their report.

The state rejected the report, hurling accusations of bias and disregard for the law at HRW. Criticism was directed at HRW by the Ministry of Interior, the government’s State Information Services (SIS), the National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) and a mass media dominated by pro-regime figures.

The report itself was highly detailed and contained numerous references to back up the findings it presented. It made references to the Egyptian government’s own statements and crosschecked the statements with evidence it had found and collected.

It concluded that on August 14, security forces had opened fire indiscriminately on crowds of protesters in Rabaa square, on more than one occasion. The report does not deny that arms were used by a small number of protesters, but emphasises that the limited use of arms did not warrant the disproportionate lethal force used by the security forces. At least 817 but possibly more than a thousand protesters were killed, as well as eight police officers.

The police did not give fair warning, and did not provide safe exits until towards the very end of the dispersal. Snipers were used from atop buildings and from helicopters. Many of the wounded were denied medical attention and there was very little mercy shown to the protesters. HRW reported that it was not able to establish who fired first, but that the extensive testimonies gathered established that the dispersal happened in the early hours of the morning a little after six, and that live fire began shortly after the start of the dispersal.

The report also details the Nahda sit-in dispersal on the same day, which left 87 dead; the massacres that occurred on July 8 outside the Republican Guard building, where 61 were killed; and on July 27 near the Manassa memorial, where 95 were killed.

In Egypt, the report was overshadowed by the same brand of Egyptian absurdity, lies and baseless accusations aimed to discredit the report and deny any serious reading. The response from the government was largely erratic and unable to deal with the report’s findings. The government’s reaction reflected more of an attempted cover up, rather than a desire to address the violations it had committed.

The MOI’s excuse for denying HRW entry to Egypt is that it has operated and carried out its investigation illegally since it is not authorised to operate in Egypt. However, obtaining a permit is dependent on security approval that is rarely ever granted. The response to the content of the report that implicated the ministry was vague, dismissive and evasive.

The NCHR, whose findings and methodology were explicitly criticised in the report, had a similar response. Political figure and NCHR secretary general George Ishak accused HRW of bias, but failed to address any of the accusations of shortcomings specifically concerning the NCHR fact-finding committee. Nasser Amin, a member of NCHR, accused HRW of inaccuracy in their report but failed to point out examples of such inaccuracy.

Egypt’s State Information Services issued a statement accusing HRW of bias, and of failing to mention other contextual facts regarding the dispersal, many of which the report actually did mention. The accusations even made an implicit link between the operations of HRW and terrorism. The government concluded that “the dispersal of the sit-ins was conducted in accordance with the relevant international legal standards”.

Furthermore, in an attempt to further smear the report, Al Watan newspaper printed a feature entitled ‘Fifteen flaws in the infamous organisation’s report,’ full of misinformation regarding the HRW report. For example, the article claimed that the report failed to document that some of the protesters in the sit-ins were armed, something which it does explicitly.

The government’s position, being complicit in this gross violation of human rights and human decency, is understandable. What may come as a shock to some is that condemnation of the killing of 1000 protesters in one day is a controversial issue among Egyptians. Those who are staunchly against the Muslim Brotherhood have made excuses for the regime, which according to the HRW report, exercised “the indiscriminate and deliberate use of lethal force resulting in one of the world’s largest killings of demonstrators in a single day in recent history.”

But why should this be shocking, when a more heinous crime, such as killing children playing football on a beach, is being justified by parts of the world that claim to be civilised and democratic.

For Egyptians, this is not the first time they have turned a blind eye to killings performed by the state’s security apparatus. Events such as the trampling of Coptic protesters outside the Maspero state television building were largely ignored and sometimes even cheered on, despite footage showing army APCs trampling over unarmed protesters.

Even as far back as 2005, police violently dispersed a sit-in staged by an estimated 2000 Sudanese refugees opposite Mostafa Mahmoud mosque, killing at least 23 people including women, children and a nine-month old baby girl. Egyptians did not move. It did not really matter to most.

Numerous governments around the world have let their security services drive the agenda and act with impunity. From a militarised police in Ferguson, to a ruthless child-killing army in Israel, to a brutal security sector in Egypt, these bodies enjoy vast powers and the backing of their governments to get away with murder and racism. Accountability is lacking.

The Rabaa protests started on June 28 in support of Mohamed Morsi, and in a deeply polarised context it can be easy to forget that human rights violations – where innocent people lose their lives – remain politically agnostic and unjustifiable. There is a difference between supporting what the Rabaa sit-in stood for, and condemning its brutal dispersal.

For many, the idea of equal rights for all does not register. When words that speak of equality do not reflect the real values adopted by people, then all we will experience are words. When the value of a human life is not a factor in the equation, all sorts of atrocities are possible. When the value of a human varies depending on ethnicity or beliefs, then all sorts of murder can be justified.

One of the doctors who refused to leave when security forces asked her to abandon the three patients she was treating during the dispersal, describes her horrific experience:

One officer said, “I am ordering you to leave.” I said, “I can’t leave with injured here; take them out [of here] yourselves!” He didn’t respond; instead, he took out his pistol and killed the three injured men in front of me, shooting them in the heart. I was hoping he would kill me. I wanted to die. The pain was too much. I was shocked. I felt they were not human beings. I grabbed him and swore. He hit me. I am not sure why he didn’t kill me.

Those who died may have peace, but those who are living have to deal with the aftermath.

About the author

Wael Eskandar is an independent journalist and blogger based in Cairo. He is a frequent commentator on Egyptian politics and has written for Ahram Online, Al-Monitor, Daily News Egypt, Counterpunch, Middle East Institute, Atlantic Council: Egypt Source and Jadaliyya, among others. He has also contributed to Egypt's Kazeboon campaign and other projects that focus on youth and digital information. Eskandar has made media appearances for numerous news channels including France 24, Russia Today, Al Jazeera and Alhurra.


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