Rabaa wasn't just a coup, it ushered in a new, totalitarian era in Egypt

Rabaa wasn't just a coup, it ushered in a new, totalitarian era in Egypt
Comment: Seven years after the massacre, it's clear that the violence at Rabaa marked the dawn of a new era ruled by fear and state control, writes Sam Hamad.
6 min read
13 Aug, 2020
Now president, Sisi was Commander-in-Chief of Egypt's Armed Forces when the massacre took place [Getty]
The Rabaa massacre, which occurred seven years ago today, was the culmination of the 2013 coup d'état by the Egyptian military against democracy - or so we are often told.

But the best way to understand this planned act of state terror against unarmed pro-democracy protesters, is also as an act that signified the dawning of a new era in Egypt – an era of totalitarianism.

The scale of the violence seen in a single day at Rabaa has thankfully not been replicated by the Sisi regime. However, violence in Egypt is nonetheless relentless and ubiquitous. The victims are mostly - like those who were murdered or maimed at Rabaa - anyone who even remotely opposes the Sisi regime and any of its machinations. 

The regime takes aim at journalists, social media, political figures, civil rights activists, health care workers and artists. The spirit of Rabaa reigns supreme over Egypt, with freedom of thought, expression and belief met with a stifling atmosphere of state terror, ranging from imprisonment, torture, blacklisting and even death.

Rabaa - where Egyptian security forces killed over 1,000 protesters in just one day - was an act of vindictive cruelty, but it's wrong to imagine that the beast that ordered and carried out this attack was acting solely from a position of strength. The beast had been wounded. 

A story from the time of the January 25 revolution and the the last days of Hosni Mubarak is telling: As millions of Egyptians took to the streets to oust the tyrant, and his henchmen had been forced to retreat, Mubarak's wife apparently pleaded with the presidential guard, "Whatever you do, don't let them get to us." 

The "them" she feared so much was the Egyptian people, a panic shared by all the ruling classes in Egypt at that time. 

Sisi has built a state conditioned on ensuring that nothing even remotely like January 25 could happen again

Their fear was justified. The January 25 revolution delivered, for the first time since 1919, democracy for normal Egyptians. It all too briefly established a democratic form of parity between Egyptians and those who had brutally and parasitically ruled over them for decades.

It exposed the vulnerabilities of those who had previously thought themselves invulnerable. We now know that from the very first minute the ruling classes, via the Armed Forces, agreed to these "compromises", they, along with powerful regional actors such as the UAE, were plotting to reverse them.

But reversing them didn't go far enough. Mubarak had been sloppy, allowing certain oppositional political forces limited rights, while a stunted-but-efficient offline and online informal civil society had managed to grow in the spaces left ungoverned by his ruling NDP.

These mistakes were not to be repeated. Though Mubarak was brutal, he wasn't brutal enough in the eyes of Egypt's wounded ruling forces. The "spirit of Tahrir" would need to be exorcised from the Egyptian people - the brutally spectacular ritual that began this exorcism was the mass murder at Rabaa.  

Ever since then, the Sisi regime has not simply carried out an anti-democratic counter-revolution, but it has built a state conditioned on ensuring that nothing even remotely like January 25 could happen again. Rabaa delivered a taste of how in Sisi's Egypt, brutality would always supersede rationality when it came to even mild dissent, where human life would be rendered meaningless in opposition to the interests of the regime. 

In the seven years since Rabaa, Sisi has criminalised not only even moderately critical journalism, but any critical thought; social media and the internet in general - both of which played a significant part in January 25 - are now ruthlessly policed by the regime.  

Read more: Sisi the so-called secularist sets his sights on Al-Azhar

Civil society groups have come under a sustained and vicious campaign of terror and repression, with human rights groups, feminists and political activists imprisoned, disappeared, tortured and murdered. Since Rabaa, Egypt has established itself as one of the leading users of the death penalty in the world. It has transformed the torture dungeon of Scorpion Prison into a virtual death camp, made even more dangerous by the Covid-19 epidemic that this crumbling, looted, anaemic state has failed to control.  

Sisi has amassed more power than any other modern Egyptian leader, exerting control over every aspect of Egyptian life. Forgetting the traditional sources of opposition such as the media, universities and civil society, Sisi has extended and exerted a stranglehold over the mostly loyalist Al-Azhar and, most recently, the ultra-loyal, but still functionally autonomous, governors.

No entity that was even remotely capable of expressing dissent is allowed to exist, and is instead reassembled according to the totalitarian order. 

This is perhaps one of the most notable elements of the phenomenon of Egypt's slide into totalitarianism. It's fear that's the main engine of this order. Sisi rose to power with dubious appeals to "stability", something that has been parroted by his American and European cheerleaders, but this "stability" is actually the single-minded ambition to maintain Egypt's ruinously kleptocratic status quo.

The spirit of Rabaa reigns supreme over Egypt

Since the beginning of the pandemic, at least nine Egyptian healthcare workers have been imprisoned since the beginning of the Covid-19 epidemic, joining at least 70 journalists, lawyers and whistleblowers in a wider crackdown against anyone who might tell the truth.  

Their "crime" has been to bring attention to the fact that Egypt's healthcare system, decimated by decades of kleptocratic looting, is collapsing in the face of the virus and the failure of the regime to even begin to address these deficiencies. Again, with Rabaa as the monstrous standard, repression is the only language Sisi speaks.     

But this is the fundamental contradiction at the heart of Egypt's totalitarian turn: Its "power" is the very thing that makes the country so weak. Under Sisi, the country that once was heralded under Nasser as the vanguard of the "third world" has been reduced to a mere client state of numerous foreign actors, but most notably the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

The UAE boasts of "ruling" Egypt thanks to its huge financial contributions to Sisi's cause, while the same regime that accused its democratic predecessors of conspiring with "foreign forces" happily gives away Egyptian islands with Egyptian names to Saudi Arabia, and routinely begs the IMF for loans that work against the economic interests of Egyptians. 

Rabaa was not a culmination of anything, but the most brutal statement of intent

Despite the deluded nationalist propaganda of the regime, Sisi's Egypt is forced to live with the reality of Ethiopia dictating its access to the Nile, the effects of which will potentially lead to an ecological catastrophe for the poorest Egyptians. Though Sisi and his apologists might put all the blame on Ethiopia, the reality is that its initial belligerence and sub-imperialist appeal to dubious notions of Egyptian "ownership" over the Nile, has made negotiations with Ethiopia harder

Meanwhile, the fact that Egypt's kleptocrats would rather bask in the glory of the dismal status quo of self-enrichment, the kind of infrastructure that might somewhat offset the potential, some might say inevitable, droughts and famines caused by the Ethiopian dam is nowhere to be seen. 

Sisi's Egypt innovates only in violence and repression.  Rabaa was not a culmination of anything, but the most brutal statement of intent.

Sam Hamad is an independent Scottish-Egyptian activist and writer.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.