Five ways the legacy of the Rabaa dispersal still haunts Egyptians today

Six years ago, Egyptian security forces killed at least 900 individuals and injured more than a thousand during the dispersal of sit-ins in Rabaa al-Adawiya and al-Nahda squares in Greater Cairo. According to official statistics, eight security officers were also killed that day. For many of those directly affected and their families, the legacy of that dark day still lingers.

Death sentences: 75 men have been sentenced to death in relation to their participation in the Rabaa sit-in. Those in custody have since appealed against these death sentences, but the Court of Cassation has yet to rule on the appeals. If the decision is upheld, they may face execution. Since 2013, Egypt has executed scores of people who were convicted following unfair trials.

Unfair trial and imprisonment in inhumane conditions: More than 650 people were handed down sentences of up to 25 years in prison related to their participation in the Rabaa sit-in following a grossly unfair mass trial in which prosecutors failed to provide sufficient evidence and establish individual culpability. Defendants, including protesters and journalists, were convicted of participating in “unauthorized protests” and other offences ranging from murder and incitement to violence to “membership in an illegal group”. Those imprisoned are forced to endure the inhumane conditions of detention in Egypt’s prisons. Many of those sentenced are held in prolonged solitary confinement at times amounting to torture. They report being beaten frequently and are denied access to lawyers, medical care or family visits.

Essam Soltan, a lawyer, former parliamentarian and leading member of the opposition al-Wasat party, has been in solitary confinement since January 2014 in al-Aqrab Prison. He was arrested on 29 July 2013 and was later sentenced to 25 years in prison in relation to the Rabaa al-Adawiya protest. Essam was initially confined to his cell for at least 23 hours daily and only allowed out into the corridor of the ward for an hour each day. However, in March 2015, prison authorities stopped allowing him out and he told a court in May 2017 that he was being confined to his cell for 24 hours a day. Essam Soltan’s treatment clearly amounts to torture under international law.

Abusive probation conditions: Even those who were released after serving prison terms of five years and six months still face severe restrictions on their liberty due to Egypt’s repressive probation measures. The authorities have been using these draconian measures to further punish scores of men convicted in the Rabaa al-Adawiya dispersal trial. Following their release from prison they are compelled to spend 12 hours each night, in police stations. During this time, they are held in overcrowded spaces with poor ventilation and limited access to sanitary facilities and are unable to receive visitors or communicate with the outside world. These punitive measures violate their rights to liberty, work, education and peaceful assembly and association, and can lead to other violations including ill-treatment, forced labour and exploitation.

“Rami” (not his real name), was convicted in the Rabaa al-Adawiya mass trial in September 2018 to five years in prison and five years’ probation on charges including “illegal gathering”, “incitement to break the law” and “involvement in violence”. He was forced to postpone his wedding given the length of his probation term, his inability to work and, as a result, his poor financial situation. “Rami” reported that he witnessed first-hand how police officers explicitly told his friend that in compliance with the National Security Agency’s (NSA) instructions, “political cases” are not allowed to take leave, after he requested a special leave to undergo medical surgery in April 2019. “Rami” spends his probation in a police station in Cairo in a room holding 25 people. He described the room as overcrowded, filthy and infested with insects. Though he says that he does not get enough sleep at the police station, he avoids sleeping at home to maximize the time he spends with his family and friends. He also reported being punched and verbally insulted by police staff and forced to clean the police station.

Exile: Some of those who were prosecuted in absentia were forced to leave Egypt out of fear of arrest, torture and other ill-treatment, unfair trials and enforced disappearance. They have sought asylum in Europe, North America and Asia, amongst other places.  

“Maged” (not his real name) left Egypt in 2013. He described witnessing the lethal use of force by the Egyptian police against protestors, seeing dead bodies and hearing screams. He was arrested by police officers and beaten, before they took him to a police station in Nasr city and detained him in an overcrowded cell for four weeks. He was released pending investigation and trial in relation to the Rabaa protest dispersal. “Maged” told Amnesty International that his life was becoming unbearable due to the ongoing investigation against him. He was unable to acquire a certificate confirming that he had finished his military service, which is a legal requirement for companies to hire Egyptian men, and was told to report to the military police. He fled the country and later learned that he had been convicted and sentenced in absentia to 25 years in prison for participating in the Rabaa sit-in. He is currently seeking asylum in a European country.

“Maged” told Amnesty International that he does not think that he will be able to go back to Egypt in the near future, as he fears that he would not get a fair trial and would be at risk of imprisonment and possibly enforced disappearance and torture.

Ongoing impunity: For those killed and for their families, justice remains a faraway prospect. To date, not a single government official has been held accountable for the killing of at least 900 individuals. In 2018, the Egyptian parliament adopted a law that empowers the president to grant immunity from prosecution to top military leaders for any act committed in the course of their duties during between 3 July 2013 and 10 January 2016. Many families also have to deal with uncertainty over the fates of their loved ones who remain forcibly disappeared.

For Sara, a student who participated in the Rabaa sit-in, her last memory of her father, Mohamed al-Sayed is of him being shoved into the back of a car outside their house by four masked burly men, two weeks after the Rabaa massacre. The car sped away and the attackers shot at the family and neighbours trying to chase after them. She has not seen him since. “Where is my father?” she asks. “Where is the law in this country? What is the evidence against him?”

She said it took three days for the police to file a formal report of her father’s disappearance. A complaint by the family to the Public Prosecutor’s Office has yielded no results. Through informal sources she has discovered that her father is likely to be in a military prison somewhere in the country but to this day has been unable to confirm his fate or whereabouts.

The brutal dispersal of the Rabaa sit-in marked a crucial turning point for Egypt. Since then, the authorities have been trampling over people’s human rights, and in particular the rights of those criticizing the government, to the point that Egypt has become an open-air prison for critics. If Egypt has any intention to move on from the ongoing human rights crisis it faces, the authorities must address the lingering legacy of the dispersal of Rabaa.