Massacre at Rabaa Square in Egypt

Basma Abdelaziz

At the time of the event, 1 was a psychiatrist, working for Egypt’s General Secretariat of Mental Health, a governmental institute falling under the Ministry of Health. 1 was also connected to the Al-Nadeem Centre, a nongovernmental organization that specialized in rehabilitation of victims of violence and torture, where 1 have worked on regular basis for more than 10 years. 1 know well from my past experience with state violence the dramatic effect it has on survivors, so 1 kept trying to offer help by all means possible during and after the massacre in Cairo.

The Pre-Disaster Community

Before the disaster struck, Egypt was passing through a period of political instability. In 2011, President Hosni Mubarak was forced by the crowds in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to leave office after almost 30 years in power. A military council took power for one and a half years, and then the Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni Islamist organization founded in 1928, acquired political authority when Brotherhood member Mohamed Morsi was elected president. However, in less than one year, the military, led by Egypt’s Minister of Defense and backed by huge numbers of protestors in the streets, ousted President Morsi, kidnapped him, and put an end to the Muslim Brotherhood ruling system. This consequently led to the famous sit-in by Muslim Brotherhood supporters in Rabaa Square in Cairo.

The Egyptian community was - and still is - extremely polarized. The Muslim Brotherhood has been in conflict with the different presidential regimes since the 1950s. This longstanding conflict has always been a very complicated one, full of hidden deals, secret negotiations, and unclear agreements between the Brotherhood and the ruling regime. This sophisticated relationship between both parties explains the extent to which the commanders of the Brotherhood initially relied on a political solution for the serious situation that arose in 2013. After the military ousted President Morsi on July 3, 2013, members of the Brotherhoodstaged a huge sit-in, invited all of their supporters, and asked the Minister of Defense to release the kidnapped president.

However, at the time of the massacre, the majority of the Egyptian population were in opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood, calling on the Ministry of Defense to save the country, then quell the sit-in, and even to eradicate the protestors. The shadows of this political conflict obscured the scene, which helped later to maximize the traumatic effect on survivors. During and after the massacre. Brotherhood supporters were met with hostility, rejection, marginalization, and sometimes physical violence.

The Disaster

Rabaa Square is located in the Nasr City district in eastern Cairo. It is composed of a public square and surrounding street branches, with the famous Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque at one of its edges. An adjacent major road is usually clogged with heavy traffic.

Protestors against President Morsi’s overthrow began occupying the square in July, and by the day of the massacre, the sit-in had gradually expanded. A Human Rights Watch report estimated the sit-in was ultimately composed of 85,000 members of the Muslim Brotherhood as well as members of other different religious groups and sympathizers who were demonstrating against what they called a military coup.

Initially, authorities made no attempt to exert control over the protestors. Before long the square contained thousands of tents where families lived for days and weeks. They were allowed to build restrooms, an amusement park for children, and a swimming pool. They tapped into electricity from public wires in the streets. Vans delivered food, water, and building supplies. The sit-in contained all social classes - lower, middle, and even upper social class businessmen belonging to the Brotherhood, from both rural and urban areas. All age groups participated from infants to elderly, and both genders were present with a considerable number of families sharing in the protest. The huge size of the crowd and the wide variety of ages were perceived as protective factors for the protestors. As one survivor told me two years later, while talking about the degree of predictability and how much the protestors were prepared to deal with the security forces during evacuation, they felt “relaxed, never expecting such a brutal, extremely violent and inhuman attack.”

All was not peaceful, however. Groups of the protestors went out on marches, screaming chants while moving towards the intelligence headquarters and searching for the missing president. Many clashes occurred between protestors and security forces in July, with dozens killed.

Then, on August 14, 2013, the security forces made the horrible decision to suddenly attack the protesters in an extremely brutal way while allegedly trying to evacuate them from the square. The massacre started early in the morning at about 6 a.m. and lasted for hours. Security forces completely blocked Rabaa Square and the streets around it, closing the five main entrances to the sit-in. They began to attack the protestors using weapons including guns with real bullets, gas bombs, and bulldozers, and even shooting at the protestors from helicopters. They set fire to the Rabaa mosque and attacked protestors in the hospital later on during the evacuation process.

There was no safe escape for the protestors who wanted to leave the sit-in once the evacuation started. Survivors stated that anyone who tried to leave the square through the pathways designated by military forces were either shot on the spot or detained by the forces, kept in compartments of its huge vans where they were subjected to torture. The injured received no real external help; the only way to deal with the wounded was to carry the victim to the hospital, which was located within the borders of the sit-in, or to leave them to their fate on the ground.

The situation quickly turned even more terrible, with corpses accumulating in the mosque and in the hospital, leaving no place for more bodies whether alive or dead. The evacuation process became a nightmare, with more than 800 killed on the spot inside Rabaa Square, in addition to countless injuries.

My Thoughts Pre-Response

Once the security forces began their attack on the protestors, I was motivated to reach the victims. Horrible results were anticipated as the sit-in contained a huge number of people, with whole families, children, and the elderly. It was obvious that extreme state violence was being perpetrated against the protestors and that there would be a huge number of victims.

After I heard that the evacuation process was happening, 1 felt frozen for some minutes, then 1 became so anxious that I made the decision to leave my house and go to Rabaa Square to offer any kind of help. At this point 1 was responding on my own. Since it was such a sudden, unbelievably terrifying shock that had started so early in the morning, there was no time to coordinate with colleagues or to join a group. Also, moving individually seemed to me to be easier; 1 thought I would be less likely to be stopped at checkpoints near the place of the massacre. However, it soon became impossible to reach the square since streets around it were completely closed. 1 kept turning my car around from a far distance, helplessly.

For me, this was not the first violent event 1 was involved in. 1 had been present in countless protest movements, sit-ins, and demonstrations, so I felt prepared to lend a hand to people. But unfortunately, feeling prepared or unprepared was not the problem here, it was the matter of how to cross walls and obstacles to reach victims and survivors.

My Response Experience

Searching for survivors was the first mission. Many preferred to hide, trying to escape the random widespread detention campaign led by the authorities after the massacre. This campaign affected thousands of members of the Muslim Brotherhood, other Islamists, and sympathizers who did not belong to any religious group. A considerable number are still suffering in prisons even now, without undergoing fair trials or being subjected to military trials.

The response setting was deeply frustrating. Many survivors had major injuries. Some became quadriplegic or paraplegic after receiving bullets in their spinal cords; some had brain injuries; some lost a limb. In addition, many of them lost relatives and friends in the evacuation, while others remained ignorant of the fate of their loved ones.

Needs were so difficult to satisfy. Physical needs were a first priority. Providing safety measures and legal help for the detained sons, daughters, fathers, other relatives, and friends came second, while offering psychological assistance has fallen to the bottom of the list in many cases.

The fact that some of the Islamist groups do not consider psychological help to be of use constituted an additional challenge. They believe that having a true faith in God will solve the psychological problems they face. However, this factor was easier to handle, compared with other difficulties.

The point to stress here is that evacuating the square did not end the disaster; this was only the beginning. The process of political revenge then followed, and became continuous, without end. The ongoing maltreatment of survivors was not limited to military authorities. The community response also favored the use of extreme violence against the protestors and generally against the Brotherhood, and this has badly impacted all efforts to offer psychological help. The public lack of sympathy for the survivors, the monstrous attitude of the media, and the manipulations the authorities have practiced to direct ordinary people to support hatred and discrimination based on political conflict were all challenging factors to deal with.

Acting upon each individual survivor’s priorities was essential, and I was not able to make a general plan regarding the complicated situation like in other disasters. 1 tried to facilitate medical help to persons who needed it, especially surgical intervention, with consideration given to the strong fears the survivors expressed, including being arrested in the hospital, which did happen in a number of cases. Psychological First Aid help automatically took place. Providing reassurance, complete understanding, sympathy, and total unconditional support to all were very important in gaining the confidence of survivors, far from any ideological struggles. In order to prevent secondary traumas, it was also important to stress who was truly responsible for the massacre and to push back against the common talk that blamed the protestors instead of the political authorities. In this context, there was no opportunity for intensive interaction with survivors; it was a situation where one aimed at saving whatever could be saved, keeping in mind the co-existing dangers and the inability to fully protect people from being re-victimized.

Weeks and months after the primary trauma of the evacuation, survivors’ reactions were mainly in the form of fears and anxiety, which appeared completely understandable given the background of the ongoing arrests and torture affecting the Brotherhood's commanders and ordinary members, and even extending to their friends and fourth-generation relatives. The unpredictability, uncertainty, and uncontrollability of the whole situation clearly caused these reactions, which in some cases led to different degrees of depression.

Anger was a common reaction too, directed not only towards the political system which committed the massacre, but also towards the community which was and still is encouraging survivors’ persecution. Many were exposed to unlawful procedures like being fired from their jobs or dismissal from colleges. Some were killed using illegitimate, outstanding force, such as being shot in their homes without any sign of actual resistance.

1 have also encountered extreme grief and sadness reactions one or two years later, when survivors finally started to realize the extent of their losses, faced the darkness of their future, and felt completely unable to cope with the life damage they experience every day. Latent PTSD was there too; some of the survivors I've listened to showed repeated flashbacks, with many tears and much terror, on remembering what they saw during the day of the sit-in evacuation.

A situation I’ve faced repeatedly was the experience of survivors who were denied basic psychological aid - sometimes even by mental health professionals. I believe I will never forget these survivors. One of them was a mother, wearing a veil hiding her face, who came to me complaining about a colleague of mine. She said she went to visit this psychiatrist, asking for professional help when her child became isolated, obviously sad, lacking interest in all activities he had previously loved, and refusing to talk to anyone. While discussing past and current clinical history, my colleague discovered that the woman and her child were among the protestors in the Rabaa sit-in. The child witnessed the killing of his father there. Upon learning this sensitive information, the psychiatrist expressed his own ideological and political views. He insulted the mother, ordered her to leave the clinic with her child, and refused to offer any help, saying “you are responsible for what has happened there, go away, search for another doctor from your Brotherhood, 1 don’t help people like you.”

At that time, I was running the office of patients’ rights, and a friend who hoped I could support her by any means led the woman to me. I referred her to another colleague, a specialist in child psychiatry, and gave him a phone call, explaining the situation and making sure the woman and her child would receive fair treatment. I’ve followed up on the case and the progress of the treatment program. Improvement was, in fact, slow, since the trauma needed concentrated intervention on many levels and the child was exposed to different types of ongoing harassment given his family’s political history, mainly in the place where he lives. However, some improvement has been achieved.

In another recent example, 1 received a private social media message from a woman asking for help. I sent her my mobile number to talk, since she said she needed urgent psychological counseling. She had attended the sit-in with her husband, who had been detained and released several times since the evacuation. Recently, he had been put in prison with no trial; she then delivered a child who has never seen his father out of prison. She said she was suffering from the way the child rejected his father during their visits, and she also complained about the husband’s inability to feel the expected, spontaneous emotions of fatherhood. Moreover, she became financially responsible for her family and this was extremely stressful and hard to accomplish. I tried to connect her with one of my colleagues, as I wasn’t actually able to offer satisfactory assistance in this area, but she suddenly disappeared. 1 was worried about her and thought maybe she was detained too, but could do nothing more than keep trying to contact her again and connect her with someone I found who was ready to help. I am still trying to figure out a way to help her.

As these examples show, survivors’ responses to the disastrous results of the forced evacuation were complicated by many factors, the majority of which can be directly attributed to the identity and nature of the perpetrator: the state security forces. Whenever violence is practiced by state authorities, as in this case, the mission of responders and care providers becomes very hard. It is not only the matter of lacking the common resources required to help survivors, but it is also the question of how to navigate the obstacles, the state’s political and bureaucratic systems intentionally put in your way: either to cover up the crime which has been committed by denying or concealing it, or to make it complete by depriving the survivors of the care they need and letting them die. As a result, facing a political, authoritarian system is not easy to do, especially while it is working intentionally to deprive survivors of any kind of help they need to overcome their trauma.

The psychological effects of the massacre extend beyond those who were in Rabaa Square to the entire Egyptian society. Against the background of the ongoing political unsteadiness and the memories of the authoritarian dictatorship the Muslim Brotherhood practiced during its months in power, most of the well-known Egyptian opponents to the group, among whom were liberals, leftists, civil society members, and even some human rights defenders, stood deeply conflicted once the massacre had been committed. Some tended at the very beginning to distance themselves, avoiding any personal involvement in helping victims. Some refused even to condemn the mass killings, stating that both parties (Islamists at the sit-in and the state’s authorities) are of the same non-democratic totalitarian nature, and both have practiced violence before, so “this is not our battle, let them deal with each other.”

Yet the survivors who have been detained after the evacuation suffered extreme, inhuman conditions, with intentional regular violations of their basic rights in prisons and other detention sites. Authorities broke all rules and laws while dealing with them. They renewed the detention period of hundreds of individuals without even asking their names; many of the detainees were subjected to extreme torture and brought to intelligence with wounds and bruises covering their bodies, but were never asked about it. The previous ambivalent reactions among observers reflect a serious internal conflict among different care-providing groups. Many of us may face a similar situation at some point, where political polarization dominates. Some can make a clear-cut decision and concentrate on the current crisis from a humanistic approach, putting away political opinion and negative emotions towards certain groups, but some may remain hesitant and unsure for a while. This period of uncertainty should not last too long, otherwise the opportunity to assist victims will decrease or might be even lost.

Over the past few years, starting from August 2013 to the present, 1 have continued to meet new people who are deeply involved in offering psychological help to the survivors of the massacre; among them are well-qualified, specialized psychiatrists. The community of psychiatrists in Egypt is so small and most of us know each other, so it was a joyful surprise to be introduced to colleagues whom I had never met or heard about before and who are doing a fantastic job, dedicating long hours to listening to victims and offering professional aid. This aid includes facilitating psychodrama groups, providing psychotherapy, and prescribing medications to help with insomnia, nightmares, flashbacks, and symptoms of severe anxiety and depression. It is important to note here that the greater percentage of these psychiatrists are Muslim, which means that they are more able to understand the motives that drove people to participate in the sit-in and to face military authorities in support of the missing president, even when those actions seemed illogical to others. Moreover, some of the psychiatrists I talked to witnessed the evacuation as they were participating in the sit-in, so they were more able than some to understand the emotions - the fears, the extreme anxiety, and nightmares - of the survivors, and also to foresee their urgent needs.

As the massacre resulted in killing more than 800 people in Rabaa Square on a single day, the numbers of survivors who needed urgent help, both physical and psychological, were really high and not easy to cover by the relatively small number of responders. But numbers were not the only difference between this disaster and other previous disasters I have responded to; the quality of the required help was problematic too. Some injuries needed highly equipped hospitals that were out of reach, or fears about detaining the injured in an airport prevented the procedure. The psychological trauma was profound, destroying all defensive mechanisms, and exacerbated by the terrifying negative community response and the mobilization against people who survived. The long-term job was mainly to bring back the Egyptian community’s integrity, to minimize its acute polarization, to fight the hate calls, and to regain human principles. These demands are actually exceeding all those that 1 have ever faced throughout my life.

1 am a writer and columnist in one of the Egyptian newspapers, and this provided a good way to express myself, to ventilate - and to resist, too. I wrote a number of articles tackling the way the system is dealing with the massacre’s survivors, criticizing the severe oppression they are exposed to, the military trials many of the prisoners undergo, the deprivation of legal rights, the prevention of family visits, and the lack of medical care which leads in some cases to death. In addition. 1 focused on analyzing the response of people standing to the opposite side, encouraging more persecution. 1 was aiming at clarifying how they contribute to aggravating the condition. However, one of my recent articles was banned from publication.

My analytical approach went side by side with giving a hand to survivors whenever possible, but at a certain point I discovered that my writings are helping even more than direct contact with them. Some survivors told me in letters that they felt a sort of redress while reading the articles, and some found consolation and condolence. Hearing this was a great source of support and assistance in coping for me.

My Post-Response Adjustment

All through my response, 1 was learning to cope in a different way than I am used to. 1 have now reached a point of acceptance while dealing with the reality of what happened, and trying to change it. I was doing all that I could, but the stressors were enormous and pressures were coming from everywhere, so making a very small improvement in the situation was to be considered a huge victory. Before, 1 used to feel guilty when 1 was unable to fulfill most of a victim's needs, but facing this unbelievable amount of brutality and being a witness to a crime against humanity pushed me to a different place where 1 started to consider the bigger picture, extracting myself from the individual crisis, evaluating the morals that dominate our society, and trying to raise awareness about the danger of neglecting our humanity in favor of anything else.

Although years have passed since the massacre was committed, its results and consequences remain, not only psychological trauma or physical injuries, but also continuous persecution, and a detention campaign which hasaffected thousands of people and is still threatening thousands more. Returning to normal life doesn’t seem a possible choice, and as long as people are exposed to this kind of political revenge, 1 will stay involved in doing my job. The acute component of the response has diminished, but other components have become chronic. The situation is not expected to be completely resolved except when reconciliation among all parties takes place.

Lessons Learned
  • • Never give up, no matter if the situation appears desperate. People can change when they meet with true sympathy and understanding, so do not lose hope in anyone.
  • • Time unveils facts and is usually in favor of the truth, so stick to your humanistic principles as much and as long as you can, even faced with strong storms; this will end up with positive results.
  • • Don't forget that the media, when led by an authoritarian system, is able to re-shape the consciousness of communities and to turn them against you, so stay calm, do not panic, do the duty you believe in, keep your integrity, and keep in mind that we are all human beings, we all deserve to be treated fairly and to hold on our dignity, no matter what our mistakes are.
  • • Stories of survivors may look so bizarre and ugly as to not to be taken seriously, but that is just our poor imagination, our idealism, and our limited experience that make it unbelievable. Offer the survivor unconditional sympathy and support, and take every word with the care it deserves - you will find its logical place later on, when the whole picture is uncovered.
  • • In such a case where the political system is the inflictor of the disaster, try hard to assure the survivors, but never guarantee their own safety. Admit that you are not able to protect them; if you offered your kind protection and faced a failure, you will lose their trust.
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