“Rabaa started as a meeting point for marches and then turned into a sit-in that lasted a month and a half before it was dispersed in carnage. Now it is an idea, or rather a reality, that will prevail above death and live inside anyone whose heart cherishes humanity.”
These the words of journalist Mohamed Khayyal, posted on the morning of Wednesday, 21 August, one week after the police broke up the sit-in of supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi at Rabaa Al-Adawiya in Nasr City, Cairo.
The dispersal, which was supported by many Egyptians, is now being painted by Islamists as an epic battle; a day of heroism and persecution, tales of which will be passed down through generations of Islamists.
Today, the area of the Rabaa sit-in has been "cleaned," according to residents of the neighbourhood whose lives were negatively impacted by the gathering of thousands — more than a hundred thousand at times — of angry and determined supporters of Egypt's first elected president, and first Muslim Brotherhood president, whose four-year term was abruptly ended amid mass demonstrations and army intervention.
‘Our lives, their martyrdom’
“Our lives were put on hold. We feared to go in or out of the apartment building where we live because this meant having to go through the angry masses and to put up with the insults that some of them directed at us for having the flag of Egypt hanging over the façade of the building, because they know well that this flag is the symbol of our participation in the 30 June demonstrations that forced Morsi out,” said Dalia, a resident of the neighbourhood.
According to Aliya, another resident: “We no longer have to worry about waking up to an explosion or a fire that could have easily erupted from the arms they were massing at the sit-in. We were particularly terrified of this scenario. I have no sympathy for them. If their leadership wanted to spare the lives of those that died, they could have asked them to bow to law enforcement bodies when they arrived. It was their choice."
The sit-in of Rabaa was one of two staged by supporters of Morsi — largely Muslim Brotherhood members. The other was in Giza, next to Cairo University at Al-Nahda Square. It started a few days before 30 June, when the Muslim Brotherhood leadership was telling followers there would be no mass anti-Morsi demonstrations.
After Morsi was removed 3 July, the sit-in kept getting bigger, even at the advent of the holy Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. “We are here fasting, praying and standing up in the face of the renewed dictatorship that is being introduced with the removal of a democratically elected president with a military coup,” said Salem, who spoke to Ahram Online on the third week of the sit-in. “We will resist to the end and if we die it is shihada (martyrdom), and to heaven we will ascend,” he added.
Forty days after the Giza sit-in was also dispersed by the police, it is not clear whether Salem lived or reached his aspired-to martyrdom. “They think it is shihada, but I think they were deeply misled,” said Aliya, arguing that for her, “The real martyrs are those police and army officers who had to die on duty while trying to end this gathering.”
Many accounts were offered by official security sources on the "arms in Rabaa." According to some Muslim Brotherhood sources speaking to Ahram Online, such accounts were “far too exaggerated.” In early August, one Brotherhood source said: “What we have is a few basic things to help us protect ourselves from thugs that keep infiltrating our sit-in to collect information for security agencies. But for sure we are not armed like a militia, as the state-run media keeps saying. They just say this to pave the way for the dispersal.”
A few days after the dispersal the minister of interior announced that more than 70 policemen were killed during the exchange of fire.
According to a report issued a month after the dispersal by Rasd, an online news service closely associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, the leaders of the group were alerted to the beginning of the dispersal and they ran for their lives without alerting the gathered crowds, who were not all Brotherhood members.
Rabaa — hidden ironies
The choice of the mosque of Rabaa Al-Adawiya in Nasr City in eastern Cairo as a location for the mass Islamist gathering was essentially due to the large number of Muslim Brotherhood leaders that live in the residential neighbourhood.
But the choice has a wider symbolism, and not a small amount of irony. The construction of Nasr City was initiated in the early 1960s by then President Gamal Abdel-Nasser, a man closely associated with the repression of the Muslim Brotherhood. It was originally supposed to be named Nasser City, but with the death of Nasser in 1971, the name was adjusted.
The mosque itself — Rabaa Al-Adawiya — was built at the intersection of two streets of heavy military connotation: Al-Tayaran and Al-Nasr streets, venues to several establishments linked to the defence ministry. The initial construction order for the mosque, which was largely burnt during sit-in dispersal and will now be reconstructed, was signed by Nasser himself. This part of Nasr City was designed to be the centre of the new residential neighbourhood, as an annex to Heliopolis where older generations of Muslim Brotherhood supporters and leaders had lived.
As much as Heliopolis was a neighbourhood for middle class professionals, including those of the Muslim Brotherhood, Nasr City evolved into a district for the richer strata of the middle class — mostly traders and private business owners many of whom returned to Egypt after having lived for decades in Arab Gulf countries where radical Islamic schools of Salafism prevail.
‘My joy, my hope and my strength’
The name of the mosque is itself material for symbolism. Born in the 8th century, Rabiya Al-Adda, a Sufi saint, was born into absolute poverty, passing through promiscuity before becoming pious in her mid-thirties and later becoming a Sufi, writing poems to address her love to God. “You are my joy, my hope and my strength; it is with you that I never feel lonely or weak; and it is with you that I want to be,” she wrote.
Ironically, Salafists have historically denied that Rabiya ever existed, yet the Brotherhood now seems to be headed by a radical Salafist-oriented leadership — confirmed with the speculated ascent of Mahmoud Ezzat, currently in hiding, to the top position of supreme guide of the political Islamic organisation.
For many of the thousands of Muslim Brotherhood members and sympathisers that kept flocking to this Nasr City square, the sit-in was an endeavour of choice, dedication, hope and resolve.
Speaking to Ahram Online in July, days that were marked by two "massacres," according to Morsi supporters (in early and late July where the death toll is said to be anywhere between 150 and 300), women and men, young and old, shared a profound belief that by determination Mohamed Morsi would "come back as the legitimate president and establish the Islamic state in Egypt."
Just as the merchant who bought Rabiya in the 8th century made use of her beauty and her musical talents at weddings and other social occasions to make money, so leaders who took to the podium of the Rabaa sit-in fed the masses on false hope while they were considering their exit scenarios. When the dispersal began at dawn Wednesday, 14 August, these same leaders escaped, leaving the masses to defend the sit-in with their lives.
While blood flowing in the streets surrounding Rabaa Al-Adawiya, with body parts falling off burned corpses amassed at a nearby mosque, defeat was not announced.
“We were betrayed; we were violated. We give our martyrs to the cause we believe in and we will continue to suffer, but we will never forget our martyrs nor shall we give up on our cause … Islamiya, Islamiya,” shouted Ahmed as he stood at the gate of Al-Iman Mosque — not far from Rabaa — on the evening of the day following the dispersal, when families were trying to identify their relatives among the mass of maimed bodies.
“The blood of our martyrs that has been shed is more honourable and more powerful than the guns of those sent by the tyrant to disperse us. We shall persist,” said Asmaa, an elderly lady lighting incense inside Al-Iman Mosque to disguise the smell of the decomposing bodies.
"The victory of blood over the sword in the revolution of the oppressed against the oppressor" is precisely the theme of the 7th century Battle of Karbala that took place in the Iraqi city when Hussein, grandson of the prophet Mohamed, declined to accept Yazid Ben Muwaiyah as Caliph.
Hussein died in the battle and became Sayyad Al-Shohada (the most senior of all martyrs) while Yazid established his rule and arrested the followers of Hussein and would not release them for two years. Forty days after the killing, the supports of Hussein gathered and mourned bitterly for having failed to live up to support the grandson of the prophet.
The Brotherhood's Karbala?
Is Rabaa the Karbala of the Muslim Brotherhood? Ibrahim El-Houdaiby, a political researcher well-versed in Islamic history and the history of the Muslim Brotherhood, answers: “It was intended to be that way. I mean from the moment of the call for the sit-in, the objective was to establish in a concrete way the cause of al-mazloumiyah [victimhood]. People were pushed to be in this mental state.”
El-Houdaiby, explicit in criticising the shocking bloodshed in Rabaa and in criticising the police operation there, added: “But let us be very clear here. Karbala is a very sacred moment. Karbala was about utter injustice, utter resistance, utter willingness to sacrifice to the inevitable cessation of being." He continues: “I am not at all sure if the Muslim Brotherhood leadership would not mind the part about the cessation of being.”
In El-Houdaiby's view, Rabaa might have been the mental state of many who took part in the sit-in, but not necessarily the intention of the leadership, which was more focused on overcoming threats to the wellbeing of the organisation by taking the masses into a confrontation where the weak — the potential martyr — would prevail victorious over the tyrant with his blood.
“The leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood could have lived up to public demands for early presidential elections, if only by agreeing on a proposed referendum on whether or not president Morsi could continue his first term in office or order early presidential elections. Mindful of an unfavourable result [in such a proposed referendum], the leadership opted for the Karbala mood,” El-Houdaiby argues.
This said, El-Houdaiby does not lay the blame for the subsequent carnage strictly at the doorstep of the Muslim Brotherhood. The authorities, he said, also the path towards a "Karbala-like" outcome through its heavy handed security-based administration of the crisis.
“Things could have been different had we been talking about prompt presidential elections and about marches of the Muslim Brotherhood that were tolerated and secured by the state,” El-Houdaiby argues.
El-Houdaiby is sceptical about what will become of the Muslim Brotherhood, a group founded in 1928 by Hassan El-Banna, who had Sufi affinities, and ended up under the thumb of Salafist-oriented leaders.
“The real question now, as we speak, is what is there really left of the Muslim Brotherhood, and what will become of the organisation now that decision-making seems to be very local, rather than central? Things are very fluid,” he said.
‘A sign of your journey’
Until this moment the Muslim Brotherhood and supporters continue to call for and hold rallies in the name of the "martyrs" of 14 August. But as distance opens up between the present and the bloody dispersal of the pro-Morsi sit-ins, and amid a wide crackdown on Brotherhood leaders and supporters, numbers turning out are dwindling.
"I don’t know what will become of the Muslim Brotherhood because I was not there for the Muslim Brotherhood, but for the cause of supporting what is right and fair against what is wrong and unjust,” said Chi, a resident of Heliopolis who was attending Rabaa almost every day. Chi was forced to hide inside the entrance of an apartment building when “the police was showering protestors with bullets."
As far as Chi is concerned, "Rabaa will persist, and justice will be done one day with the help of the Almighty." This justice is not necessarily about Morsi regaining the presidency, but rather defying the “power of tyranny."
A sketch of a hand holding up four fingers is now appearing as the Facebook profile photo of many who were there in Rabaa (which in Arabic means fourth). The design was inspired by a gesture of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan during a recent public speech where expressed support for Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, and decried the human tragedy of the dispersal in Rabaa.
The sketch, fast becoming an icon, appears in black against a yellow background with the legend, "Utter belief, utter resistance and utter willingness to sacrifice."
Versions also appear with verses of the poetry of the Sufi saint Rabaa: "How can you remove the life from something in whose being you continue to exist, and who lives as a sign of your journey?"