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Between the war in Gaza, the ISIS advance on Iraq, Libya’s disintegration, and the monumental brutality of the Syrian conflict—the last week of July was the deadliest of the civil war—the world barely noticed the one year anniversary of the violent dispersal of a sit-in at Cairo’s Rabaa al-Adawiya Square. Now as the annual UN General Assembly meeting is set to begin, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, and lesser officials are descending upon New York to spread the good word that everything in Egypt is just fine. They are hoping—in some cases demanding—that people don’t ask hard questions about what transpired last year. Despite these wishes, let’s review: On August 14, 2013 almost 1,000 Egyptians were killed and another 3,000 injured mostly at the hands of the Ministry of Interior’s Central Security Forces, but also under the watchful eyes of the Egyptian armed forces. The sit-in at Rabaa and al-Nahda Squares had been underway since the coup d’état that ousted President Mohammed Morsi on July 3. Human Rights Watch recently released a report detailing the massacre. It makes for a chilling read. Others have weighed-in on this terrible event as well. Of particular interest is a piece that Amy Austin Holmes, who is an assistant professor of sociology at the American University in Cairo, posted at the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog under the title “Why Egypt’s Military Orchestrated a Massacre.” In it Holmes poses an important question: “How do we explain the behavior of the Egyptian military on Tahrir in January 2011 [which was ostensibly peaceful] and in Rabaa in 2013?” As Holmes recounts—she observed the Rabaa protests—the clearing of the square was the worst massacre in modern Egyptian history and it was, by Egyptian officials’ own admission, entirely planned. The massacre itself tells analysts something important about the trajectory of Egyptian politics in general, but the conduct of the armed forces, which had previously vowed never to use violence against fellow Egyptians, cries out for explanation. Holmes comes up short, however. She offers sound analysis without ever getting to the heart of matter. So what is the deal? How come there was no massacre in Tahrir, but one at Rabaa?
My critique of Holmes is a friendly one. Perhaps she is “over-problematizing” if such a word exists, but Holmes is certainly onto something with her piece. A lot of what people told other people about the conduct of the armed forces from the time Hosni Mubarak was pushed from office does not make much sense against the ostensibly shocking violence at Rabaa. This is largely a function of an over-abundance of mythologizing about the armed forces mostly by its Egyptian supporters and defective analysis by experts who are a little too attached to arguments they made after January 25, but before July 3.
First, let’s start with the myths that Holmes addresses in her post. The officers are not as averse to using violence against fellow Egyptians as their public statements to the contrary indicate. It is true enough that the military itself seems reluctant to fire on its own people, but it apparently does not have a problem with others doing it. After all, it is mostly the police, para-military forces, and the Republican Guard—which, as the presidency’s praetorian force, is separate from the chain of command—that have done the vast majority of the killing. Nevertheless, it is indisputable that the Egyptian military has overseen the killing of large numbers of Egyptians in the last 3.5 years by a policy that can be characterized in Holmes’s words as a “failure to prevent” the police and Republican Guardsmen from pulling the trigger. This is an important point, which, based on the available evidence, is entirely accurate.
Second, Holmes has a beef with the idea that some analysts have put forward that Egypt is fundamentally different from Syria because the military is “institutionalized” and thus could more readily “defect from the regime” and thus dumped Hosni Mubarak—something which Syrian officers could never do because they are dependent on Bashar al-Assad. Egypt is different from Syria, but I agree with Holmes’s gripe with some additional explanation: The Egyptian military is capable of acting autonomously and has a specific set of interests that are all its own. It did not defect from the regime, but from Hosni Mubarak who at a basic level represented the informal linkage between the presidency and the armed forces. A “regime” is not a person, but rather a political order that encompasses rules, regulations, decrees, and laws that shape the behavior and expectations of individuals. In pushing Mubarak from power on February 11, 2011, the Egyptian military actually sought to salvage the regime that Egyptians rose up against eighteen days earlier.
Before I get to the heart of the matter, I need to address another issue—one where Holmes and I diverge. At the end of her post, she argues that the military’s failure to prevent the Ministry of Interior’s killing of fellow Egyptians suggests more cooperation between the armed forces and the police than others claim. Holmes advises that future research should take this into account. I am one of those others, having written here and there about the competition between the military and Ministry of Interior. I am all for more research, but it may very well be that Rabaa is the exception that proves the rule of a rather uneasy, mistrustful relationship between the military and the police that has certainly existed since the January 25 uprising, but which actually has its roots in the 1950s and 1960s. It should be self-evident that this historic uneasiness and mistrust would not necessarily preclude cooperation. After all, even if the police generals and the military generals dislike each other, there are times when their interests intersect. Still, it is no secret that the Ministry of Defense looks askance at the Ministry of Interior’s mission and regards policing the streets as beneath the noble mission of defending the country. Given that the military really does not want to be on the front line of maintaining order and that the police outnumber the military, the Ministry of Interior seems to have leverage over the armed forces, constraining the Ministry of Defense from reining in the cops—assuming it wants to—during moments of police excess. As a result, the military has chosen to avoid outright confrontation with the Ministry of Interior.
Rabaa, as Holmes indicates, is different. There the kind of institutional mistrust was absent as military and police worked hand in glove to ensure that the violence employed was used to maximum effect. Again why was it ok to kill almost 1,000 Egyptians last August 14, but not in Tahrir in early 2011? The answers come in both the drastically different ways these moments of mass protests were framed and the threat perception of the military. The by now gauzy narrative of Tahrir was that it was a popular, peaceful coming together of all Egyptians to rid themselves of an autocratic leader who through graft, corruption, and violence had done great harm to the country. Once the military realized what was happening and that the demonstrations had legs, the officers positioned themselves as patrons of the people and their desire to live in a democratic society. Some of us were skeptical, but of course impressed with the shrewd way in which the Ministry of Defense managed to place itself on the side of the protesters even though it was a primary beneficiary of the regime and had no real intention of “paving the way to democracy.”
There was, of course, violence around the Tahrir protests. Anywhere from 850-1000 people were killed, but the premeditation of Rabaa was absent. Holmes’s brief description of the massacre last August is riveting:
The killing was done by the Central Security Forces and Special Forces in close coordination with the Egyptian Armed Forces, with few if any reported defections or refusals to open fire. Security forces began firing on civilians around 6:30am and over the course of 12 hours they continued emptying rounds of live ammunition into crowds of men, women, and children who they had entrapped, despite repeated promises of “safe exit.” This was not a brief killing spree that ended as suddenly as it began, or the panicked response of threatened conscripts in the fog of battle.
This horrific scene was made possible because Rabaa was depicted as a disruptive, non-Egyptian, democracy-defying, violence/terrorism-driven premeditated event. Unlike Tahrir, which promised progress, Rabaa demanded Mohammed Morsi’s return, which was portrayed as a call for bloodshed. There was, of course, some truth to this. The stage at Rabaa had become a forum for coded and not so coded language in support of violence, which played right into the hands of Egypt’s new leadership. The killing at Rabaa took place just three weeks after Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s extraordinary speech at the Naval Academy’s graduation ceremony on July 24, 2013, which in part called the people out to the streets to fight terrorism. In the upside down logic of Egyptian politics then (as now) this was an effort to legitimate violence and absolve the military of the blood that would be spilled. It became acceptable to kill large numbers of people in the name of a revolution that Egypt’s leadership does not and never did believe in. There was also the military’s perception of threat. Keeping in mind the historic competition between the officers and the Muslim Brothers for power, the reality was that the demonstrations at Rabaa al-Adawiya Square posed a political challenge to the military in ways that were fundamentally different and more dangerous than the January 25 uprising. Having no compelling answer to this challenge, the commanders resorted to force.
What other explanations are needed?