Expectations that deposed President Mohammed Morsi would return came to a brutal end in Rabaa Square five years ago today after security forces advanced on demonstrators, shot for 12 hours into the sea of people, crushed them below their tanks and set fire to the tents in which they were sleeping.
That day the Egyptian military massacred 1,000 people in the square and the field hospital where the wounded were being treated yet not one senior member of the military has ever been punished – instead, over 700 civilians have been accused or convicted of illegal protest or murder in the square.
The Rabaa massacre did not end on the 14 August. Not only does Rabaa represent the failed hope of Egyptian democracy but it set a precedent for the despicable brutality of a regime towards its own citizens. The lack of accountability from the international community and the Egyptian authorities in its aftermath emboldened the Egyptian government’s scorched earth policy which has touched all corners of Egypt.
One of the clearest examples that this slaughter continues is the war on terror in North Sinai, which began in October 2014 and culminated in February this year when the government pledged to restore security once and for all through Operation Sinai 2018. It has been one long Rabaa massacre on a whole province, complete with restrictions on food, medicine and cooking gas. Authorities cut water and electricity and people had internet for only a few hours a day. Schools and universities closed.
Since the start of Operation Sinai Human Rights Watch estimate that 420,000 civilians are in urgent need of humanitarian aid. Since September 2015 the state has killed roughly 7,000 people and arrested 25,000 in the province.
There is an insurgency in North Sinai but when you consider that the estimated number of militants is 1,000 it’s clear that the campaign is disproportionate. A closer look at the victims and it’s easy to see why it has been more accurately described as a war on civilians.
On 30 December 2017 12-year-old Abdullah Aldeen was in bed the night before an exam when security forces stormed the house, took him and threw him in a van. He was forcibly disappeared until the 3 July this year when he reappeared in Ismailia, however his family remain unable to visit him.
On 26 July this year security forces arrested ten-year-old Ibrahim Shaheen from his home in Al-Arish along with his family. Ibrahim and Abdullah should be at home with their mothers, not locked in one of Egypt’s infamous prisons.
Who can forget the video released earlier this year of a young boy pleading for his mother moments before he was shot. Not long afterwards reserve army officer Mohammed Amer boasted on Facebook that it was him who “eliminated” the kid.
These are just snippets of what is happening in the region – the army has placed coverage of their campaign there under strict control and banned human rights workers and journalists from entering North Sinai so there is a near total blackout on information.
At the same time they have pushed a PR campaign which portrays the military’s efforts there as successful and heroic. Journalists who deviate from the official line are punished under anti-terror legislation as we saw with Sinai expert Ismail Iskandarani who has been sentenced to ten years in prison for reporting critically on operations there.
There have been breaks in this media blackout, for example two weeks ago the Egyptian government invited several journalists to Al-Arish, the capital of North Sinai. AFP then reported “there is fruit and vegetable aplenty in the markets, public transport is back on the road and universities have reopened”; CNC ran the headline “Life returns to normal in Egypt”. This story was then published in Arab News, the Times of Israel, CNC News, the Daily Mail, Daily News Egypt, Arab News and New China TV.
For those away from the government sponsored tour life is far from returning to normal. As one activist recently told me, even if there is food in the markets this doesn’t mean that people have the money to buy it. Most of the restrictions on travel are still in place and Sinai University operations have actually been transferred out of the province to mainland Egypt.
These journalists obviously didn’t go to what’s left of Rafah or Sheikh Zuweid where 90 per cent of the farms have been razed, the villages that have been demolished, or visit the remains of the 3,000 homes that have been destroyed in Rafah City to create Egypt’s buffer zone with Gaza.
Amidst this destruction the most devastating aspect of all is that the Egyptian government has proved to be totally inept at actually countering terrorism. So far in 2018 alone 182 terror attacks have killed 520 people, whereas in 2014 363 people were killed.
It is not difficult to work out that such repressive policies will push more individuals to sympathise with militant groups who are angry at the state. In the month and a half before the Rabaa massacre took place, a range of people aggrieved with the government came to speak on a makeshift stage erected outside the mosque. Some of these people were from North Sinai, a province long marginalised by the government, yet instead of listening to them, the Egyptian government massacred them. Rabaa simply made thousands of people even more angry.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.