Before the Bloodletting: A Tour of the Rabaa Sit-in

For the record, not everyone who took the bullets at Rabaa belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood. I visited the Rabaa Al-Adawiya sit-in the night before security forces besieged it.

Rabaa Al-Adawiya sit-in, Nasr City, August 13, 2013. Amy Austin Holmes.

For the record, not everyone who took the bullets at Rabaa belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood.

I visited 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.

The 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 over600 dead, and more than 56 churches, monasteries and Christian schools attacked, it was the single most violent day in recent Egyptian history.

Together 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.

The 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 Tahrir Square.

State 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.

First of 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.

Second, 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.

Finally, 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.

To be 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.

In fact, 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.”

The 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.”

Despite 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.”

Back home 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.

In defending the bloodletting, Ahmed Ali, the spokesman for the Ministry of Defense, said, “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.