Rabaa Square in Retrospective: The Victory of Fear in Egypt
Egypt’s authoritarian state is playing off fear to coopt the revolution and justify ruthless oppression.
In summer 2013, Tamarod activists, with megaphones on street corners and in metro stations, collected signatures en masse calling for an end to the presidency of Mohammed Morsi and sparked one of the largest public protests in Egyptian history. After Morsi’s ouster, the state hijacked Egypt’s revolution. Egypt’s democracy movement spirals downward, back to where it came from: authoritarianism. Once a promising sign of the potency of Egyptian grassroots mobilization to hold authority accountable, more than one year after its foundation it is clear that Tamarod ended up dividing society, catalyzing bloodshed, chaos, and a power grab by the state establishment.
Today’s Egypt bears deep scars of division, and following months of civil unrest and one of the bloodiest political massacres in recent history — the clearing of Rabaa El Adaweiya Square in August 2013 — a political calm is held uneasily in place. First with emergency rule, curfews, and tanks, now Egypt’s security apparatus is revived and emboldened, complete with a small army of open-topped, machine-gun manned police jeeps. Thousands of Islamists and secular activists alike are locked up behind prison bars, and Tahrir Square is off limits to protesters following the declaration of a law banning protests. Journalists, judges, activists, human rights defenders, students and academics have been victims of state aggression and intimidation.
The shoddy monument erected in the revolution’s epicenter celebrates the victory of the state-affiliated construction companies contracted to build it; the one in Rabaa Square honoring “police martyrs” stands in unabashed dishonor to those dead citizens who died at the hands of the security apparatus. The bullet casings that littered Cairo sidewalks have been swept up and melted down alongside thousands of American-made teargas canisters. The chanting has died down amidst fear of arrest, torture and murder by the state.
Even those who seek to channel dissent through legitimate and constructive channels — youth, civic, and nongovernmental organizations — face intrusive and obstructive legislation under Egypt’s draconian civil associations law. Meanwhile, a notoriously slow judiciary proves to be exceptionally quick and merciless when it comes to locking away faces of the revolution or sentencing Islamists to death en masse.
Culture of Fear
Now, Egyptians salute current president and former general and military spy chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Hailed as the hero of the “second revolution,” many believe his government can address all of Egypt’s problems so long as the Muslim Brotherhood “terrorists” are dealt with by any means necessary.
But for revolutionary hopefuls, the current sense of calm in Cairo, however, wreaks of fear, apathy, and defeat of the populist cause. Egypt’s counter-revolution — the current wave of repressive tactics and consolidation of the state’s institutional and corporate interests — is blowback from a once promising Tamarod rebellion against former President Morsi.
For liberals and academic observers, Morsi succumbed to the authoritarian tendencies of his predecessors and failed to press a populist agenda, favoring a neoliberal one that benefited the elite financiers of the Muslim Brotherhood. The perception that he focused on party power consolidation over national interests turned him into fresh bait swallowed whole by the state establishment as soon as they sensed his weakness: dwindling popular support in the face of a volatile, yet divided, political opposition.
The trend so far: massive mob impeaches president, massive mob approves war against fellow citizens, angry mobs clash violently in the streets, massive mob massacred, mob cheers on bloodshed, massive arrests, mass death sentencing, and so on.
Those ensnared by the incessant propaganda against the Muslim Brotherhood, were convinced to doubt the group’s loyalty to Egyptian national interests amidst a culture of fear and economic uncertainty.
Tamarod’s petition campaign calling for the ouster of Mohammad Morsi set in motion a series of chaotic events, eventually leading to nation-wide polarization, an explosion of senseless violence and subsequent repression under the guise of restoring security, led by now-President Sisi. The signs of a healthy democracy — targeted civil society campaigns, competition between parliamentary coalitions, court battles, and engaged efforts to spark constructive public debates — were forsaken. Instead, Tamarod took Egypt’s political conflicts to the street where a series of massive brawls and armed scuffles ensued and the body count began.
It is understandable how most normal Egyptians, trying to make it in a suffering economy after months of daily protests, shootings, and church attacks wanted stability. Sisi’s promise of stability was accompanied by a continuous barrage of propaganda alleging that the political group ruling Egypt for the past year was secretly a terrorist organization, collaborating with foreign powers to destabilize the country and jeopardize national interests. This aimed to terrify the public to give up the essential freedoms it made strides in gaining in 2012. The narrative, peddled by mass media, made fear — not rule of law — the stabilizing force.
Sisi capitalized on that fear, if he did not help orchestrate it. Allied with former supporters of the Mubarak regime and big business-affiliated media, he officiated a narrative wherein Egypt faced existential security threats from Muslim Brotherhood “terrorists” in a hyper-nationalistic political climate reminiscent of 1930s European fascism or post-9/11 United States.
State propaganda accompanied military intelligence’s offer of extensive support to help Tamarod orchestrate the June 30, 2013, protests, according to Newsweek reporter Mike Giglio.
Trial By Mob
General Sisi used the revolution’s very own weapon — mass public mobilization — against it. In an address to the nation on July 24, 2013, he called upon Egyptians to take to the streets as a public mandate to “fight terrorism.” What ended up being the final mass demonstration in Tahrir Square since (apart from a government-sponsored October 6 show of loyalty to the revived military order, the same day state security killed around 53 anti-state protesters marching toward Tahrir) tens of thousands of Egyptians gave Sisi the green light.
After an extensive year-long study of evidence and firsthand testimony, Human Rights Watch (HRW) documented “premeditated,” “widespread and systematic” use of lethal force by Egyptian police and military forces against thousands of protestors at Rabaa el-Adaweya and al-Nahda squares and other public marches following the ousting of Morsi in July 2013. The organization concluded that the massacres “constituted serious violations of international human rights law, but likely amounted to crimes against humanity.”
Violent armed raids, mass arrests, torture, and repressive laws soon followed, often to the sound of applause by military loyalists and media pundits. Not a single police or army single officer has been held accountable, nor has any actionable internal inquiry been launched.
“Rabaa”, now the immortalized “four-finger” symbol of protest martyrdom amidst a series of state killings marks the apex of a dark chapter for post-revolution Egypt, wherein mob whims, fear and brute force won out over law, skilled organizing, and fair political competition.
The tragedy at Rabaa el-Adaweya Square represents the culmination of strategic blunders on behalf of Egypt’s opposition forces alongside an irresponsible rebellious attitude by pro-military, pro-January 25, and pro-Morsi forces alike. It was a preventable event caused partially by the desperation of Egypt’s failed non-Islamist political parties, which joined forces with the military because they could not compete against the Muslim Brotherhood in an open political arena. Myopic grassroots leadership sparked unrest that allowed a revolutionary movement to be coopted by a fear-high state apparatus.
In demanding the ouster of the first democratically elected president in Egyptian history, Tamarod tore to shreds the legitimate foundation for rule of law and long-term stability — the 2012 constitution. Despite certain flaws, a majority of Egyptians, spurred on in part by the Brotherhood’s effective political machine, approved it in Egypt’s first fair election. In return, the post-coup constitutional vote, secured with corporate-funded propaganda and marred by the intimidation and arrest of those campaigning against it, marks a return to Mubarak-era thug politics. The tainted constitutional referendum effectively robs the nation of legal legitimacy from the outset, not to mention the document’s legal shields around the military, police and judiciary. “Rabaa” epitomizes a security apparatus immune to accountability, a bleak reality now enshrined in the nation’s highest set of laws.
Still, since its passage, the state has regularly violated the very constitution it propagated, abusing rights of press freedom, assembly, labor and due process. Without constitutional legitimacy, the justice system’s cooptation by the state is evident with each announcement of a mass sentencing against the state establishment’s political enemies. It is not legal accountability, but fear and repression — the root causes of tragedies like “Rabaa” — which governs the “order” of the day.
Rather than a fair, clear-headed, individualized justice process, Egypt succumbed to the whims of a fearful, angry citizenry and became victim to the poisons of mob rule. The trend so far: massive mob impeaches president, massive mob approves war against fellow citizens, angry mobs clash violently in the streets, massive mob massacred, mob cheers on bloodshed, massive arrests, mass death sentencing, and so on. It is as if individual guilt, distributed among so many, fades away amidst a sea of injustice.
The Lost Way, Bloodstained Conscience
There was another way to preempt massacre and repression. When the public was galvanized against Morsi, the opposition could have guided grassroots momentum to press the government for reasonable demands alongside independently achievable public initiatives. Demands for a cleaner environment, better education, and a healthier life would have significantly improved the conditions and psyche of the people whether or not the government was controlled by the Muslim Brothers. Most importantly, the key actors in such demands would have been the people — not the military — who had an opportunity to embody change and band together across political divides in order to attain such aims.
The failure of revolutionary forces in Egypt to foresee the extensive political and social maturity necessary for meaningful, societally beneficial civic engagement and democracy proved crippling for the movement.
The compromise between the Muslim Brotherhood and the opposition could have been keeping Morsi as president alongside constitutional provisions regulating executive authority, and immediate parliamentary elections. The millions who showed their support for the Tamarod petition could have been mobilized to vote for a united alternative to the military and Islamic currents that aimed to advance the populist or revolutionary goals, and hold Morsi’s Islamist agenda in check.
Civil society and opposition to Islamist forces could have coalesced into a platform to hold the government accountable with constructive criticism, while guiding the youth masses and pressuring the government to assist in efforts of social welfare — not through handouts but comprehensive development and mass scale volunteerism. This may have proven to be what Egypt would have needed to foster the evolution of the rebel mindset into a truly revolutionary one, wherein individual and societal goals are united.
Such feat could have been achieved had cool persistence quelled Egypt’s fiery impatience and fear of the Brotherhood. Come election time, such force of progressive populists, with the grassroots girth of the Tamarod movement, could have handily competed with the Brotherhood machine on a fair political playing field. Ultimately, it was time for the progressive, non-denominational alternative to step up and compete. At the end of Morsi’s term, whichever force more effectively addressed the plight of the Egyptian people would have gained electoral sway.
Instead, myopic notions of a “quick fix” prevailed, wherein a list of demands was somehow thought achievable by toppling of the government figurehead. It was relatively easy to mobilize people to chant and demand a better economy. But it is that much harder — and this may be the key to a successful revolution — to keep people fed, peaceful, content, organized and engaged in the effort to make their communities a better place to live in the long term. This is the difference between the negative energy of a movement like Tamarod, which sparked chaos, regression, and “Rabaa,” versus the positive force for social activism and genuine revolution that it could have been (and still could be).
Civil disobedience is a vital tool for any citizenry willing to confront forces of oppression. But the failure of revolutionary forces in Egypt to foresee the extensive political and social maturity necessary for meaningful, societally beneficial civic engagement and democracy proved crippling for the movement. A Pandora’s box — a power vacuum now filled by the immovable military-state establishment — has shattered the essential notions of accountability and constitutional legitimacy bringing the revolution back to square one. Except now, the blood of thousands stains our collective conscience.