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Sisi and the curse of Rabaa

The HRW report incriminates Sisi of crimes against humanity and may be the first step to his countless victims getting justice

The King Abdulaziz necklace is the highest honour the Saudi Kingdom can bestow on international statesmen. It has graced the necks of such "men of high standing" as George W Bush, Vladimir Putin, and Bashar al-Assad. On Sunday, the Custodian of the Two Mosques placed the ultimate honour around the balding head of Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the man whom Human Rights Watch today says should be investigated for crimes against humanity.

The timing of the accolade accorded to Sisi by his paymaster could be accidental. More likely, it is a nervous reflex action to a larger and more ominous event. This week sees the first anniversary of two massacres in the centre of Cairo which HRW say will go down in history as one of the world’s largest killings of demonstrators on a single day - more than massacre in Tiananmen Square and on a par with Andijan in Uzbekistan. That is a big claim and this organisation has some experience of the subject.

HRW does not pull its punches. An exhaustive year-long inquiry into massacres which occurred when the military coup authorities forcefully dispersed two mass sit-in of protesters at Rabaa al-Adawiya and al-Nadha squares on 14 August last year names Sisi and two others as having direct command responsibility. Not only that, these massacres were premeditated, Human Rights Watch charge. Interior ministry officials revealed in a meeting with human rights organisations nine days before the dispersal that they anticipated a death toll of up to 3500.

As defence minister, Sisi held a command role over the armed forces and acknowledged spending “very many long days to discuss all the details” of the Rabaa dispersal. Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim formulated the dispersal plan and admitted ordering Special forces to “advance and purify” key buildings in the square. Medhat Menshawy, head of special forces and commander of the Rabaa operation boasted that he told Ibrahim that “we will attack whatever it costs us”.

The head of the General Intelligence Services, Mohammed Fareed Tohamy, eight ministry of interior deputies, three army leaders and several high-ranking civil servants are all implicated in the HRW report.

Extensive witness evidence established that the number of firearms used by members of the sit-in was limited. Ibrahim himself said that 15 guns had been seized. If this is true, it would corroborate evidence that police gunned down hundreds of unarmed demonstrators, firing indiscriminately into the crowds by standing on the top of APC’s and rooftops, behaviour which did not indicate fear of being fired on themselves. The Egyptian government both planned for, and executed, a violent dispersal that would result in widespread killings of protesters without any serious effort to implement warnings or safe exits, HRW says.

The importance of this report is three-fold. This is the first time the chain of command, and command responsibility - both key factors of a successful prosecution in the International Criminal Court in The Hague - have been investigated and identified by an international human rights organisation of this size and reputation.While Egypt is not a state party to the ICC, and the ICC itself has set obstacles in the way of a prosecution, HRW reports are credible and may prompt national jurisdictions to bring charges against members of the Egyptian government. It is also the first time that the Egyptian government’s excuse, that they were replying to force used against them, has been thoroughly exposed as hollow. Third, it establishes the continuing culpability of those governments who continue to arm and deal officially with Sisi’s regime in Egypt.

Sisi’s human rights abuses are not over by a long chalk. The killing of more than 1,000 protesters in August last year proved to be only the start of a reign of terror visited on the whole spectrum of political opposition, secular as well as Islamist, including  even those  groups which initially supported the violent overthrow and imprisonment of the former president Mohamed Morsi. Mass killings followed on October 2, 2013 and on January 25 this year. At least 22,000 people have been arrested in the crackdowns. 

Despite statements criticising the mass killings as disproportionate, both the EU and US continue to actively support  this blood-soaked regime. Washington suspended a portion of its military aid in October last year, but in April this year announced its intention to release ten Apache helicopters and $650m in aid on the basis that it aids US counter-terrorism and national security interests.

Sarah Leah Whitson, the HRW Middle East director - who with Kenneth Roth, the HRW executive director, was banned from entering Egypt this week - hoped the report would form the basis of a ban on all military aid to Egypt by the US Congress. She said: "We are making a very clear recommendation that we do not want to see weapons being used for domestic repression to be provided by the international community, particularly the US. We have already called on [Secretary of State John] Kerry to make clear that Egypt does not meet the requirements for military aid.”

There is a wider point. The people who committed crimes against humanity are still attempting to gain international currency. Tohamy, for instance, is the man in charge of efforts to negotiate a truce between Israel and the Palestinian resistance groups in Gaza. Sisi can travel to the US without fear of arrest, and yet the crimes for which he should be investigated are grave enough to fall under the universal jurisdiction of domestic US, European and British courts.

HRW's case is simply put. If Egypt’s response to massacres is to award bonuses to the people who committed them and erect monuments in their honour, it is time the international community acted, be that in the form of a UN commission, or the Arab League or African Union. Nothing will happen, of course, because the bottom line is  that , like a generation of Latin American dictators before them,  these men are western allies, whom the US and the EU protect by their silence. They will enjoy this protection even though they could easily become involved in other conflicts like Libya, using helicopters supplied by the US. As long as he continues to enjoy impunity for his crimes,  Sisi is in fact a major destabiliser of the Middle East.

The battle to establish the truth of what happened in Cairo on 14 August last year has only just begun. Although Sisi's road to perdition may be a long one, the HRW report will ensure that the Egyptian leader will be haunted by the ghosts of his victims at Rabaa. 

- David Hearst is editor-in-chief of Middle East Eye. He was chief foreign leader writer of The Guardian, former Associate Foreign Editor, European Editor, Moscow Bureau Chief, European Correspondent, and Ireland Correspondent. He joined The Guardian, from The Scotsman, where he was education correspondent.  

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo credit: Saudi monarch with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, former US President George W Bush and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, sourced from m.almasryalyoum

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