After another tense night at the sprawling tent city surrounding Cairo’s Rabaa al-Adewaya mosque, Ibrahim Mohamed and his wife stood in the shade with their 6-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son—one of many young families filling the main thoroughfare. “We are not afraid,” Mohamed said on Monday.
At an entrance nearby, newly constructed cement barricades and walls made of stacked sandbags gave the sense of a military encampment braced for a siege. Since Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s former president, was ousted by the army last month, the sit-in at Rabaa has become the heart of the push to get him back. Egypt’s new authorities, meanwhile, call it a threat to national security and have vowed repeatedly to clear it. Clashes with security forces on the outskirts of the sit-in have twice sparked massacres, leaving some 150 Morsi supporters dead.
Yet the families at Rabaa have remained. In fact, as the sit-in has pressed on, the number of children there has seemed to rise.
On Sunday, security forces leaked word to the media that action against Rabaa was imminent, perhaps even overnight. But children swarmed the sit-in as usual on Monday, visiting face-painting stands with their parents and scampering around the tents. Some had bandannas with Islamic slogans wrapped around their heads, and some carried photos of the deposed president. “We are here to support Mohamed Morsi!” a group of kids chanted as they marched through the crowd, a beaming father trailing behind.
Banners overhead provided a chilling reminder of the violence that could be in store, showing gory images of men killed in the previous clashes. Some parents at Rabaa said the threats only increased their resolve to stay. They proudly introduced their children to a visiting reporter—“This is Youssef, my only son,” one man said, holding his 18-month-old child in the air—and vowed to protect them. “We are not bringing them here to be killed. Not at all,” said Magdy Soliman, another father at the sit-in. “They are sharing in this victory.”
Outside Rabaa, however, the presence of so many children at the sit-in has caused an uproar. The new government has accused Morsi’s supporters of using them to ward off an attack, calling them “human shields.” Morsi’s political opponents make the same claim—while also suggesting that, in the event of a crackdown, his Muslim Brotherhood, which is directing the sit-in, will seize on child casualties in an attempt to win sympathy.
After the first massacre outside Rabaa in early July, the Brotherhood’s public relations team infamously spread images of dead children that were later discovered to be taken from the carnage of Syria’s civil war. When images of children at Rabaa dressed in martyrdom shawls later made the rounds, they caused a media sensation in Egypt. Critics have even accused the Brotherhood of bringing orphans to Rabaa from sympathetic charities, a charge they deny.
Security sources say the children provide a serious logistical challenge to their efforts at dispersing the sit-in. “They are putting women and children at the entrance,” says Gen. Hany Abdel Latif, an official with the Interior Ministry and its former spokesman. “They are using—using—them as human shields. And of course, this is one of our main considerations.”
With violence at Rabaa seeming imminent, meanwhile, children’s advocates have been sounding the alarm. Hany Helal, head of the Egyptian Coalition for Children’s Rights, says he has issued warnings to both the government and the pro-Morsi side. If clashes erupt at Rabaa, the children “won’t be able to escape,” he says. “If either side, the government or the Muslim Brotherhood, put their lives in danger, we will take them to court. We will make a case not only here but internationally.”
Egypt’s security forces have a woeful track record on dispersing protests peacefully. “It is the responsibility of the government to take care of a child’s life, even if the child’s family puts him in danger,” Helal says. “This is the first time in Egypt that we’ve seen children used in this way. This is a scary development.”
On a recent night in Rabaa, workers at the media center gave various justifications for the presence of the children. “They’re here because they’re expressing their right to be here,” said Wafaa Hefny, an English professor on hand to speak to reporters. Any harm that came to the children, she insisted, would be the fault of the government. Another media worker, Mohamed Soltan, painted it as an issue of women’s rights, contending that if women couldn’t bring their children to protest, they would have to stay home themselves.
Ahmed Aref, a spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood, said in an interview Monday that claims of children at Rabaa being used for cover were false. “They are with their families,” he said. “It is very normal for children to be with their families. And at the end they are here defending their right to live with dignity.”
Aref added that all of Egypt is now unsafe for Morsi’s supporters and their families. “Death comes to Egyptians since the coup from any place,” he said. “You can’t say that death is only in Rabaa, or that it’s only unsafe in Rabaa.”
Many of the families gathered at Rabaa on Monday said they were ready for their fate. “Of course they are in danger. But we are not afraid,” Essam Said, a truck driver at the demonstration, said of the four young children with him.
“My child has to share everything with me—he has to share hope and fear,” added Ashraf Salah, another father in the crowd. “There’s something important I want you to know. In our religion, our destiny is written before we were born. If my child was meant to be killed today, he was meant to be killed. I will never be able to prevent it.”
With reporting by Maged Atef in Cairo.