The Morning After Egypt’s Rabaa Massacre

Who’s behind the brutal killings at Cairo’s main Islamist sit-in outside Rabaa Mosque?

Ed Giles/Getty

Powerful army chief Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi showed up smiling at a broadcasted national police academy graduation on Sunday, less than 24 hours after at least 72 pro-Morsi protesters were shot to death by Egyptian security forces. Instead of being criticized for what the Muslim Brotherhood and some in the international community have deemed a massacre, Sisi was honored with a standing ovation. Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim referred to the general as “Egypt’s devoted son,” promising a cheering crowd that he would accept “the people's mandate” to fight terrorism in a military-led “new dawn.”

The morning after the brutal killings at Cairo’s main Islamist sit-in outside of Rabaa Mosque, most Egyptian television channels and newspapers either failed to report on the fatalities or blamed the Muslim Brotherhood entirely, applauding Sisi for his valiant work.

The scene at Rabaa on Saturday looked nothing like what Egypt’s media, or its leaders, described. Inside of the field hospital, doctors desperately tried to save the lives of dozens of protesters, many of whom seemed to have died from bullet wounds to the head and chest—although the interior minister says no live fire was used. As the battered corpses were lined up in a blood-soaked room, friends and family members came to identify their loved ones, gasping for air between sobs.

As the bodies were moved from the ambulances, the names of the victims were read aloud so that all could hear. “Ahmad Said,” a man shouted, the limp body of a young medical student emerging, wrapped in a white sheet in accordance with Islamic tradition.

One woman silently wept, staring up at the sky. Her beige niqab (a conservative Islamic headdress that shows only the eyes) was stained from hours of crying. A medic standing close to her wore both a stethoscope and a gas mask around her neck—she seemed to be in shock. A man with blood-splattered medical gloves on held a Quran high above his head. The black band on his head read, "There is no god but God. Muhammad is the messenger of God."

But with such unfaltering support of Sisi and the security forces among much of the Egyptian population, and a deeply rooted hatred for Morsi and his failed politics, sympathy for those killed at Rabaa was scarce. Instead, the Muslim Brotherhood was accused of capitalizing on the bloodshed.

After the military removed Morsi from power, a crackdown on his allies and supporters has ensued, in addition to hardline security measures enacted by the Interior Ministry that have some activists and international leaders questioning the intentions of the interim government.

Late Sunday night, two leaders of the Wasat Party, a pro-Morsi moderate Islamist group formed by Muslim Brotherhood defectors, were arrested and sent to Tora Prison, where Mubarak is held and Morsi is also rumored to be sent soon.

Wasat Party head Aboul-Ela Madi was publicly critical of the transitional government and was banned—along with dozens of other Islamists—from traveling outside Egypt following Morsi’s ouster. The party’s vice president, Essam Sultan, had previously been charged with insulting State Security Council judges in press interviews.

“The charges raise the specter of a zero-sum ideological crackdown of the Muslim Brotherhood,” Michael Wahid Hanna, an Egyptian-American senior fellow at the Century Foundation, told The Daily Beast. “Egypt cannot have a functioning and stable civilian-led political process if critical Islamist voices far removed from violence don't have a place in the political process.”

Calling the arrests “ominous,” he said the crackdown could be a personal attack on the leaders due to their public criticism of the security sector.

“It's ironic that just last summer Aboul-Ela Madi complained bitterly about the monopolistic aspects of the Muslim Brotherhood and their inability to cooperate or communicate with other political factions,” Hanna said. “But as the political crisis deepened, particularly with respect to the Constitution, Wasat found itself essentially indistinguishable from the Muslim Brotherhood.”

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The two leaders’ detainment follows a slew of arrests of Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist figures that world leaders, including U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, have condemned.

The European Union’s foreign-policy chief, Catherin Ashton, headed to Cairo on Monday in an attempt to mediate bitterly divided political forces. She is set to meet both members of the interim government and of the deposed Freedom and Justice Party, formerly led by Morsi. She plans to pressure the Egyptian government into agreeing upon “a fully inclusive transition process, taking in all political groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood.”

On Saturday, the interior minister also announced the reinstatement of departments that will monitor political and religious activities, calling their closure following the 2011 revolution a “mistake.” Outspoken groups, such as the rebel Tamarod campaign, which has up until now whole-heartedly supported the military and its call to rally against terrorism, say they will not accept the “witch hunt of political activists under any pretext.”

“The reinstatement of the departments is worrying,” said influential Egyptian blogger Ghaly Shafik, who tweets and writes under the name “The Big Pharaoh,” in an interview with The Daily Beast.

“Such tactics should end no matter who is running the country. Cracking down on the Muslim Brotherhood will only make them stronger.”

The Anti Coup Alliance, led by Morsi supporters, announced in a press release Monday that it would march with coffins following evening prayers to security-administration buildings “to condemn the criminal acts and the firing of live ammunition by the Interior Ministry at peaceful demonstrators,” followed by a Tuesday million-man march honoring the Rabaa “martyrs.”

The decision comes following the military’s harsh warning to protesters that those approaching army facilities could be killed after Islamist protesters were reported marching to the intelligence headquarters early Monday morning chanting: “Our blood and souls we sacrifice for Morsi.”