Rabaa Al-Adawiya sit-in, Nasr City, August 13, 2013. Amy Austin Holmes.
Before the Bloodletting: A Tour of the Rabaa Sit-in
August 16, 2013
record, not everyone who took the bullets at Rabaa belonged to the Muslim
the Rabaa Al-Adawiya sit-in the night before security forces besieged
it. The atmosphere was relaxed. Children jumped on trampolines. Men were
playing soccer. A woman wearing a black niqab embraced me when I told her in
Arabic that I lived in Cairo. There was no sense of impending doom.
exception was the entrance, where people kneeled at a makeshift shrine, stones
in a circle on the sidewalk. They kissed the blood on the pavement of those who
had been killed in the previous two massacres, fellow supporters of deposed
President Mohamed Morsi. Wednesday was the third. With over 600
dead, and more than 56 churches, monasteries and Christian schools attacked, it was
the single most violent day in recent Egyptian history.
with a journalist friend, I had signed up for the Rabaa Tour, an outreach
initiative launched about ten days earlier. We were met by Mohamed and Aisha,
who spent the next several hours showing us around the huge encampment. According
to our guides, they had approximately one visitor per day. Presumably, we were
their last guests.
sit-in was huge, sprawling over several kilometers. It had grown into a miniature
city, considerably larger in terms of physical space than the sit-in on
officials, the media, as well as a number of liberal commentators, have framed
their battle against the Muslim Brotherhood as a war
on “terrorism.” The sit-in has been described
as “violent and armed.” For a variety of reasons, I was skeptical.
all, holding a sit-in is not exactly the tactic of choice of a terrorist
organization. I’m not aware of Al-Qaeda ever having staged a sit-in. They tend
to prefer taking more drastic measures, such as kidnapping people, hijacking
airplanes, car bombings, etc. Holding sit-ins are, however, a relatively common
tactic of non-violent social movements.
state media had also claimed that armed Coptic Christians were attacking army
soldiers on October 9, 2011. That turned
out to be false.
In reality, the Maspero massacre resulted in the deaths of 52 unarmed
civilians, most of them Copts.
social movements do not necessarily have strict membership criteria. Even those
who claim leadership of a movement may never know how many people or who
exactly ‘belongs’ to a movement due to differing levels of engagement. Some
people may dedicate their entire life to a movement, others may only show up
occasionally at a demonstration. If there is no membership, there is no such
thing as excluding members for bad behavior. This is what makes social
movements harder to grasp and more difficult to study than political parties.
So while some participants of the Rabaa sit-in may have engaged in violence,
this does not necessarily mean that all other participants supported this. The
same is true of the Tahrir sit-ins.
sure, some elements of the Muslim Brotherhood have engaged in acts of violence.
However, not everyone at the Rabaa sit-in belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood.
not a single one of my interlocutors at Rabaa were members of the Brotherhood. Maissa,
a housewife who has been living in France for 13 years, said that before she
starting coming to the sit-in she didn’t even know anyone from the Freedom and
Justice Party, an organizing force behind the demonstration. Aisha, a young
college student studying international relations in New Hampshire, told me that
she was not there for Morsi, but for her principles. “If you get elected by the
ballot box, you have to leave by the ballot box.” If Mohamed ElBaradei had been
president, and had been removed by a military intervention, she claimed, she
would be defending him instead of Morsi. Mohamed, a 27 year-old marketing instructor
at the American University in Cairo, was also not a member of the Brotherhood. He
even referred to Morsi as a “loser.” He said that he wasn’t insisting that
Morsi be re-instated. What was it then that they wanted? Why had they been
camping out there for 45 days, enduring bullets, tear gas, and the August sun.
As if he were pleading for his life, he said, “We just want people to know we
are peaceful. We are not terrorists.”
hundreds, possibly thousands, of signs that had been hung up all over the
sit-in, also did not give much indication of nefarious terroristic intent. One
large banner read: “The People Want the Return of President” in Arabic,
English, and French. Another said: “Democracy versus Coup.” And another: “We Refused
Military Coup in Egypt.” Then there was a series of signs that said
“Veterinarians for Morsi,” “Teachers for Morsi,” “Liberals for Morsi,” and so
on. And my personal favorite: “The Army Threw Away my Vote.”
threats that the sit-in would be cleared, on Tuesday evening the protesters showed
no signs of leaving. In addition to the tents, one of our guides proudly
pointed out how wooden structures consisting of three levels had been erected.
It was as if they were about to build a three-story home. I had never seen anything
like this attempted during the various encampments in Tahrir Square. The
protesters were determined to stay. In fact, they seemed to be quite happy
there. Maissa, the housewife who lives in Paris, said the Rabaa sit-in was “the
best 37 days of her life.”
I woke up
Wednesday morning to the news that the sit-ins were being attacked. Upon
hearing that it was impossible to gain access to Rabaa, I went immediately to the
middle-class neighborhood of Mohandiseen. This is where many of the protesters
from the Nahda sit-in had escaped. Blood was on the pavement and gunshots
whistled through the air. At least seven barricades had been erected along
Batal Ahmed Abdel Aziz Street. A Central Security Forces vehicle was overturned
and on fire. As the shooting intensified, a group of bearded men to my right
began chanting, “Allah Akhbar.” To my left was a clean-shaven man visiting from
London. I asked if he had voted for Morsi. After hesitating, he admitted that
he did not vote at all in the presidential elections. He said that he had come
to the protest, not to defend Morsi, but because he didn’t want his country to
return to military rule. “Sixty years of military rule was enough.”
on Wednesday evening, I called Mohamed, the marketing instructor at the
American University in Cairo. He had been shot in the stomach during the siege
on Rabaa. He said he was “lucky”, and that he would be okay.
defending the bloodletting, Ahmed Ali, the spokesman for the Ministry of
“When dealing with terrorism, the consideration of civil and human
rights are not applicable.” Calling people like Maissa the housewife, Aisha the student, and
Mohamed the marketing instructor terrorists, is not only inaccurate, it is
dangerous. Shooting at them is the logical consequence. Even over the phone, I
could hear the pain in Mohamed’s voice: “We will tell our grandchildren about
this day, if we have the chance to live some more.”
Amy Austin Holmes is an assistant professor of sociology at the American
University in Cairo, where she has taught since 2008. She is currently a visiting
scholar at Brown University and at the Institute of Advanced Studies in
Toulouse. On Twitter: @AmyAustinHolmes.