Last Tuesday marked the fifth anniversary of Egypt’s Rabaa massacre. The Egyptian government arrested thirteen alleged Muslim Brotherhood members, accusing them of stirring up protests. The ministry statement said, “We received information that they had been planning to hold meetings…with the aim of provoking citizens to mark the fifth anniversary by staging demonstrations and sowing chaos.”
Seven people were held northwest of Cairo. Six others were arrested in one of Cairo’s suburb. Three of those six were sentenced, in absentia, to 10-15 years in prison. These arrests are part of a broader government effort to avoid accountability for the massacre that took place five years ago.
On July 3rd, 2013, the military staged a bloody coup to remove Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first freely-elected president. The coup followed massive protests in Tahrir Square calling for Morsi’s removal.
In response to the coup, the Muslim Brotherhood called for counter-protests at the Rabaa al-Adawiya square. At the time, the Muslim Brotherhood was one of Egypt’s most popular political parties. Morsi was one of its main leaders.
With time, the counter-protests gained traction. More and more people gathered in the square to eat, pray, sleep, and give voice to their indignation. Some believed that the protests could convince the military to put Morsi back in power. Protesters occupied the square for 45 days, but then, on August 14th, the security forces arrived. They came in masses, with armored vehicles and bulldozers, and killed hundreds of people within a matter of hours. The Human Rights Watch reports that 817 civilians were killed, but it is possible that the true numbers run over a thousand. The killings “likely amounted to crimes against humanity,” according to the HRW.
The Egyptian government has not investigated or prosecuted any of the security forces involved in the massacre. They have, however, convicted hundreds of protesters in widely-criticized mass trials. In July, the government sentenced 75 people to death for protesting at Rabaa. At this point, 739 people potentially face the death penalty.
To make matters even worse, the government has taken action to protect military officials who could be potentially implicated in the massacre. Last month, President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi passed a law that provides “immunity” to military commanders for actions taken during the time period between July 2013 and July 2016.
Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW’s director for the Middle East and North Africa says that, “five years on from the Rabaa massacre, the only response from authorities has been to try to insulate those responsible for these crimes from justice.” But justice is necessary in order to move forward. “Without justice, Rabaa remains an open wound. Those responsible for the mass killings of protesters shouldn’t count on being able to shield themselves from accountability forever.”
Najia Bounaim, North Africa Campaigns Director for Amnesty International said that “The Egyptian authorities’ repeated failure to respect the rights of protesters, and their failure to hold anyone accountable for mass murders, has contributed to an environment in which the security forces feel empowered to violate human rights with absolute impunity.”
Sisi’s regime seems determined to crush any voice brave enough to speak out against it. Just this past week, the government passed a new law authorizing censorship of websites that “constitute a threat to the state,” according to Al Jazeera. The government can prosecute the people who run the websites with up to five years in jail or fines ranging from $560 to $1.1m. Another recent law allows the government to monitor the social media accounts of those with more than 5,000 followers. Activists accuse Sisi of rolling back progress made in the 2011 Arab Spring uprising.
Sahar Aziz, a law professor at Rutgers, told Al Jazeera that “the state has become much more of a police and surveillance state. Most Egyptians have completely given up on trying to defend the rights of the Rabaa victims, much less the rights of civil society, human rights activists and others who are languishing in jail.”
It is abundantly clear that Sisi’s regime has little respect for the rights of its citizens. Not only has it failed to seek justice for the victims of the Rabaa massacre—it is working to shield the likely perpetrators. These last rounds of arrests provide yet another example of the ways in which the government has attempted to avoid accountability for the atrocity.