Published in Inside Arabia on August 14, 2020
Almost seven years ago, I sat in a small hotel meeting room in Cairo, gathering testimonies about the massacres of August 14, 2013, when Egyptian military and security forces deliberately killed at least 1,000 protesters in broad daylight. An ashen-faced woman, veiled but with dark strands peeking out, could barely whisper the words of what she had endured. She was a nurse, she said, and had stood by an injured woman who had been shot and was bleeding, she said. A few soldiers approached, and she pleaded for help to carry the woman to the makeshift hospital nearby. Instead, they shot the injured woman dead, joking that help was no longer needed. "I wanted to tell you what happened to me, to all of us, because I want you to tell the world. Will we ever see justice?" she asked.
It's a question that I've heard so many times from victims of terrible abuses in the Middle East, but rarely a question with a positive answer. There wasn't much reason to believe that the victims of the massacres in Egypt's Rabaa and al-Nahda Squares would see the perpetrators punished for what they had done, despite the unprecedented horror of that day. Never before in Egypt had government forces killed so many protesters in a single day, exceeded globally only by China's Tiananmen Square massacre.
The massacre in Cairo also stood out because of the way in which the government had systematically and deliberately planned to break up the sit-ins of over 85,000 people against the July 3, 2013 military coup, anticipating killing several more thousands. In our exhaustive investigation at Human Rights Watch, we found the widespread and systematic massacre, using tanks, bulldozers, snipers and ground troops, amounted to crimes against humanity.
Our report was very deliberate in naming the culprits who bore the greatest responsibility for organizing and executing the massacre: General Sisi, of course, but also Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim, Special Forces head and commander of the Rabaa operation, Medhat Menshawy, and Prime Minister Hazem al-Beblawy. We hoped, at best, that the UN Human Rights Council would launch an investigation into these crimes, or that the US would cut its $1.6 billion in aid to the Egyptian government.
Sadly, not even our minimal goals came to pass. While some Egyptian government officials, like Vice President Mohamed ElBaradei, resigned in protest following the massacre, the coup leaders received over US$8 billion in support from Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Even the Obama administration soon returned to business as usual, after a brief pause in military assistance, and the end of democracy in Egypt became a fait accompli. Army and police forces that should have been held to account, were, instead, honored with a statue in Rabaa that celebrates their role in the massacre.
But this month, a new lawsuit filed in federal district court by one of the Rabaa Square victims, Mohamed Soltan, gave all of the survivors of the massacre, and human rights activists like myself, a tremendous sense of hope. Soltan, who was shot at the Rabaa sit-in, and was jailed and tortured for 21 months, blames al-Beblawy, Sisi, and other government officials for their role in the massacre and his torture. Significantly, the complaint cites Human Rights Watch's report for evidence of al-Beblawy's role in the massacre.
No doubt, the memory of the bloody massacres in Rabaa and al-Nahda Squares haunts the innocent victims and survivors. Does it also haunt the perpetrators, men like al-Beblawy, now 83, whose plans to sail off into the sunset and live out his years in the cushy suburbs of Virginia on the prestigious Executive Board of the International Monetary Fund have now been disrupted by a lawsuit in US federal court? I recently had the opportunity to ask Egypt's former Minister of Foreign Affairs Nabil Fahmy if he regretted remaining in the Sisi administration, working to justify the coup and the massacre, and whether he now feared prosecution himself. It was good to see him nervous.
It's no surprise that the Trump administration has jumped in to ask the federal court to protect al-Bablawy. Trump's lawyers have put forth a strange interpretation of "sovereign immunity," claiming that al-Beblawy's job at the bank makes him a representative of the Egyptian government and therefore immune from suits in the US. Sadly, we've seen our government attempt to shield Egyptian, Israeli, and Saudi criminals — even for harms they've caused Americans — Egyptian, Israeli, and Saudi criminals who happen to be close allies of the administration.
In this case, America's client state in Egypt has even tried to play hardball with America, retaliating against Soltan's lawsuit by arresting his cousins and uncle in Cairo, and threatening to cool "strategic cooperation" with our government, last week receiving a batch of 24 war planes from Russia. (I'm sure they'll generously continue to accept the billions in American military largesse, however.) The truth that every American must grapple with is that our tax dollars, alongside the diplomatic and political cover our government provides, have played a major role in sustaining and enabling brutal governments in the Middle East, some under a facade of democracy, others out and out absolute monarchies.
In the meanwhile, we can take solace in the possibility that our courts and our laws may afford recourse to the victims of horrific human rights abuses and some measure of accountability for those who commit and cover up the atrocities. Cases like Soltan's reaffirm the importance not only of providing an avenue for victims to pursue justice but also for documenting the wrongs and naming the names of the perpetrators.
At Democracy for the Arab World (DAWN), the organization founded by murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, we plan to go the extra mile to identifying the culprits, ensuring that they don't rest easy, ever, and that their day in court may well arrive sooner rather than later. Seven years since the Rabaa massacre, we are seeing some justice for the victims. We at DAWN will make sure there is more.