Nine years after Rabaa massacre, US still turns blind eye to Egyptian abuses

5 min read
15 August, 2022

On 6 August 2013, almost one week before Egyptian security forces would massacre over 800 civilians protesting in and around Rabaa Square, US Senator John McCain stood in Cairo and publicly called the regime change in Egypt what it was: a military coup.

The US government did not follow suit and officially label the overthrow of Egypt’s first democratically elected president a coup, a move that would have required it to cut off $1.3 billion in military aid.

Rather, successive administrations have taken meagre and halting steps to condemn the consequent waves of repression.

In the years since, Egyptian officials have counted on Washington officially mischaracterising, or ignoring, the severity of the challenges, which has had serious ramifications both on Egypt’s human rights situation and on American democracy.

"Egypt continues to enjoy its status as a Washington ally: President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the same man who presided over the massacre at Raba'a al Adaweya, is planning to travel to the US twice this year"

Nine years later, Egypt’s repression has not only claimed the freedom of an estimated 60,000 political prisoners, but its reach has extended to US soil.

And yet, Egypt continues to enjoy its status as a Washington ally: President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the same man who presided over the massacre at Raba’a al Adaweya, is planning to travel to the US twice this year.

This is, in part, because the current regime in Egypt has continuously counted on Washington’s willful ignorance of faux reforms as meaningful steps. 

Most recently, for instance, el-Sisi has called for national dialogue and for the re-constitution of a dormant presidential pardon committee to release political detainees.

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In the months since these calls, the dialogue was relegated from the supervision of the presidency to a little-known training academy, where its steering committee included none of the names put forward by the opposition.

Even more discouraging, when a former parliamentarian and head of the opposition Alkarama Party wrote several opinion pieces criticizing the dialogue, the regime blocked the news site.

Most damning of all, while 443 people have been released since el-Sisi’s remarks, at least 716 have been arrested. For every detainee they have released, they have detained almost two.

Beyond new detainments, over 7,000 people have seen their pretrial detentions renewed in the same time period.

Egyptian civil society sees a very different country than what the current regime markets abroad.

Whereas Egypt plans to host the COP27 meetings in Sharm ElShiekh this November, environmental activists such as Ahmed Amasha, who has been subjected to enforced disappearance and torture, and Seif Fateen, a former professor director of environmental engineering program at Zewail University, remain behind bars. 

Others like prominent British-Egyptian activist Alaa Abdelfatah, human rights lawyer Hoda Abdelmoniem, and former member of parliament Ziad El-Elimy continue to endure increasingly harsh prison conditions.

Rabaa massacre
Nine years ago on 14 August 2013, over 800 people were killed in one day in Rabaa square. [Getty]

All of these, and tens of thousands of others, have worked and dreamed about an Egypt for all Egyptians. Issues like climate change and sustainable development are what pushed them to Tahrir square in 2011.

An agenda of accountability and change, on climate or otherwise, is impossible without an active civil society. A civil society behind bars or threatened in exile is tremendously less effective at securing either.

The administration’s failure to take serious measures to combat these human rights abuses, and call things for what they are, is increasingly a threat not just to Egyptian democracy, but to our own.

Egypt’s reach into American democracy has been through consistent threats to activists, defamation campaigns, and travel bans against the families of dissidents.

A recent report by Freedom House found Egypt to be the third-largest aggressor of transnational repression. At the Freedom Initiative, we have documented instances in which US citizens were denied travel back home from Egypt because of their parents’ political activism. 

"The current regime in Egypt has continuously counted on Washington's willful ignorance of faux reforms as meaningful steps"

We have also documented incidents in which citizens were surveilled by foreign security operatives and threatened to be physically harmed on US soil. Activists who engage US civil society are also defamed on state-owned channels and, perhaps more urgently, have their family members arrested.

By failing to use its leverage and undermining campaign promises, the Biden admin is harming its credibility.

Days after President Biden’s meeting with el-Sisi, a notable columnist, and member of the steering committee for National Dialogue, wrote an op-ed mocking activism in the US saying that Washington will always choose interests over human rights, and that the meeting was a case in point.

One way to combat this notion is to ensure that upcoming meetings with Washington officials are done on the condition that US persons behind bars and under travel bans are released and allowed to come back home.

Meetings without these measures are read as implicit endorsements of the regime’s policies. This includes people like Salah Soltan, a legal permanent resident, Hussien Mahdy, the father of a US asylum seeker, and Seif Fateen, the father of three US citizens.

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Nine years ago on 14 August 2013, over 800 people were killed in one day in Rabaa square. The US administration at the time stood against calling the regime change what it was and we have continued to pay the price of de facto endorsements of these policies. 

These endorsements have only contributed to a worsening human rights condition in Egypt and have manifested as a security threat for America and Americans.

The killing of Jamal Khashoggi and recent arrest tied to the attempted assassination of John Bolton speak to the fact that autocracies have grown to see their borders as reaching the doorsteps of their most fierce critics. 

This administration’s promise of “no more blank checks to dictators” has manifested itself in lacklustre efforts that have been read as implicit endorsements of bad global practices.

Holding Egypt more accountable and calling faux reforms for what they are is a good first step towards rectifying this.

Amr ElAfifi is the Research Manager at the Freedom Initiative, an organisation dedicated to advocating on behalf of political prisoners in the Middle East. Amr is also a PhD candidate at Syracuse University where his research focuses on diaspora politics and transnational repression.

Follow him on Twitter: @AmrElafifi

This article originally appeared on Responsible Statecraft.