Did Egypt's democracy die with my brother in Rabaa?
Two years ago today, my brother Amir was one of more than 1,100 protesters killed in Rabaa Square in Cairo, Egypt. He was shot in the neck by a high-calibre sniper rifle, but the government claimed he died of “natural causes".
Two years later, no one has been investigated, arrested or tried for the Rabaa Square massacre, which Human Rights Watch called the “worst unlawful mass killings” in modern Egyptian history. The evil we witnessed, the images we saw, and the testimonies we heard still haunt us to this day.
A lot has happened in our family in the two years since my brother Amir was killed by Egyptian security forces. The younger of his two daughters, Rodayna, started pre-school, my wife and I had a beautiful daughter named Maryam, and I have two new nephews, both named after Amir. But most notably, our beloved mother lost her battle with breast cancer, and she was laid to rest this past April. Even in her final hours, the mention of Amir’s name brought tears to her eyes.
Since the Rabaa massacre, government repression and brutality have continued unabated. Since the military coup of July 2013, over 3,200 have been killed, more than 15,000 injured, and over 41,000 political activists jailed, with hundreds receiving death sentences in sham trials.
A good man
Human Rights Watch (HRW) carried out a year-long investigation of the events of Rabaa and produced a 195-page report, All According to Plan. Their findings suggest that government-perpetrated Rabaa violence constitutes possible crimes against humanity, and that senior Egyptian officials, including current President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, authorised the dispersal. The atrocities were carried out by Egyptian security forces who employed ground troops, helicopters, tanks, bulldozers, thugs and snipers to attack and open fire on demonstrators, including women and children, who had been camped out for over 45 days protesting the coup.
Despite the overwhelming evidence of these systematic crimes, not a single official has been held accountable.
My brother Amir was a good man. He was honest, kind and always sought to help others. He was religiously observant, but not judgmental, and was never a part of any organised religious or political movement.
Amir was committed to the 25 January 2011 Egyptian Revolution and worked hard to protect it. From the 2011 revolution to the Rabaa sit-in, he was one of the unsung heroes, who peacefully protested against military rule, protected the revolution and supported justice and democratic reforms.
Protesting the coup
After President Mohamed Morsi was forcibly removed from power by the military on 3 July 2013, Amir joined the encampment at Rabaa Square to protest against the military takeover. He told me that he believed the coup had erased all of the democratic and political advancements Egyptians had made since 2011. He lamented the fact that five different free and fair elections and referendums were overturned in one fell swoop.
Like many of the protesters in Rabaa, Amir was never a member of the Muslim Brotherhood; he never spoke on stage or took an official role in the encampment. He spent his days at his accounting firm and his nights at Rabaa Square, with thousands of other Egyptians, calling for the restoration of democracy and an end to military rule.
I was in Cairo at the time of his murder for a family vacation and to attend another brother’s wedding. The city was quiet and felt empty, and Tahrir Square - the site of the largest 2011 protests - was filled with security forces. The only place that felt alive was Rabaa Square. When we visited the encampment two days before the tragic dispersal, it felt like the entire country was there. The square and all the side streets leading to it were packed with hundreds of thousands of people.
On 14 August, I woke up to TV news of military and police forces beginning the dispersal of Rabaa. Amir had been there since 5am, helping to protect and move the injured. Rabaa was under siege - cut off from the rest of the country - and few were able to enter or leave. We tried to reach Amir by phone, but all communication was shut down. Eyewitnesses told me Amir was shot in the neck by a sniper fire from a helicopter or a rooftop around 2pm near the Rabaa stage.
Because it was not safe to exit the square due to sniper fire, volunteers had to transport his body to a field hospital inside Rabaa where he died minutes later. Security forces later torched this same hospital with injured patients inside. Due to the siege, my family and I were in the dark about what happened to Amir until the next morning. Amir’s wife eventually found his dead body on the street in Rabaa, but due to an imposed curfew, my family and I were prevented from retrieving him.
With the help of a neighbour, my sister-in-law carried her husband’s body a few blocks to a makeshift morgue set up at the Al-Iman Mosque. That’s where I found Amir’s body on 15 August, among 350 bodies I personally counted.
When my parents and I arrived at Al-Iman Mosque, we were in disbelief. The mosque was wall-to-wall with dead bodies. It was a hot, summer day and, with no refrigeration, the stench of death filled the air. There were rows upon rows of dead bodies, all covered in white sheets. To find Amir’s body, we had to uncover the faces of some 50 corpses.
We knew Amir’s body was there, but nothing can prepare you for seeing the body of your dead brother or son. When we found Amir’s body our hearts sank and my mother fell to her knees next to him, her eyes swelling with tears. Her cherished son lay dead in front of her. He had a large hole in his neck, which appeared to be the result of a single high-calibre bullet.
Before we could bury my brother, we were required to obtain an official death certificate in order to remove his body from the mosque. The official death certificate my parents were given to sign stated that Amir had died of “natural causes”.
In an apparent effort to systematically minimise casualty figures, the regime kept dead bodies hostage until family members accepted death certificates stating that murdered protesters had died of “natural causes”. While many people were pressured to accept this lie, my parents were determined otherwise.
The next steps were to file a police report, get a case number, hire a medical examiner to examine my brother, and sign the death certificate with the real cause of death. This ordeal took an entire day and required the help of a dozen or so people, including lawyers. Sadly, the majority of the victims did not have these types of resources to challenge the phony death certificates.
My family and I firmly believe that Amir and his fellow protesters were intentionally killed by Egyptian security forces who were following the orders of General Sisi, Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim, and their administration. They were killed because they opposed military rule and supported freedom and democracy.
Two years after the dark days of the Rabaa Massacre, Egyptian government repression continues unchecked. The current military-backed regime came to power by purging the Muslim Brotherhood, and has spent these last two years eliminating any remaining political, academic and media opposition and dissent.
Unfortunately, the regime’s repressive policies are pushing some youth to give up on democracy and adopt violent extremism. Unless democracy and justice are restored, Egypt will likely continue to see darker days ahead.
The international community can no longer ignore the crimes of the current Egyptian regime. They must hold the criminals of the Rabaa massacre accountable, demand the military withdraw from politics, and support national reconciliation efforts that do not exclude any pro-democracy groups or movements.
- Ahmed Bedier is an Egyptian-American social entrepreneur, non-profit CEO, radio show host, human rights and democracy advocate and television commentator. His brother Amir was shot and killed by Egypt’s security forces during the violent dispersal of Rabaa square sit-in. He can be reached on twitter @bedier
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo: Ahmed Bedier after finding his brother Amir's body in Masjid al-Iman mosque August 15 2013, Nasr City, Cairo (Ahmed Bedier)