August 14, 2023 at 1:00 a.m. EDT
Hundreds more protesters were rounded up and imprisoned; some were later sentenced to death. Many others fled the country, never to return.
The violent crackdown came six weeks after army Gen. Abdel Fatah El-Sisi seized power from President Mohamed Morsi, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood. Morsi was elected the year after Egypt’s 2011 revolution, which forced autocrat Hosni Mubarak from power and spurred hope for democratic change across the Middle East.
The mass, peaceful sit-ins to protest Morsi’s ouster were attended by thousands of Egyptians — most belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood and supported Morsi; others simply opposed the military takeover. They camped out for weeks, built crude barricades and some brought weapons — fearing an attack by security forces.
The largest gathering was in Rabaa Square. The government said there were terrorists and other dangerous actors in the crowd. In 2019, El-Sisi, who became president in 2014, told CBS News: “There were thousands of armed people in the sit-in for more than 40 days. We tried every peaceful means to disperse them.”
Investigations by human rights groups found that most protesters were unarmed.
The mass killing, and the lack of justice, marked a major turning point for Egypt — cementing the military’s hold on power and its willingness to use deadly force to maintain it.
What happened in Rabaa Square has divided families and friends, upended lives and deepened the country’s political divisions. All these years later, it is hard to discuss openly.
The Washington Post spoke to five Egyptians who were present that day, or whose lives were altered by what came next.
Ahmed Samih, 44, former human rights activist
Ahead of Aug. 14, Egyptian human rights activist Ahmed Samih received an invitation to a closed-door meeting at the Interior Ministry. By the end, he said, “I got a very clear sense that [the dispersal] was going to be violent.”
Security forces, he said, estimated some 3,000 casualties between the two sides — figures he shared with journalists at the time.
The divisions over Egypt’s future were so extreme, he said, that there was violence in the air. “Somebody [who was] very peaceful their whole life [would] say, ‘They just should kill them all.’”
The morning the operation began, he rushed across Cairo to bear witness. “I just wanted to see the truth,” he said.
Black smoke rose from burning tires. Blood was everywhere — spilled on the ground and smeared on cars.
By the next morning, he had counted more than 152 bodies at a morgue.
Different ideas about what happened that day destroyed some of his relationships. “I still have friends I don’t talk to … and they don’t talk to me,” he said.
After Rabaa, he said, “everything changed in Egypt.” For a long time, though, he didn’t want “to feel or believe that the public space was shrinking.”
He continued with his human rights work. Then, in 2015, he was charged with illegally operating his online radio station. His office was searched, he was fined and slept in a local police station.
The next year, while working as an election monitor in Uganda, he received a tip from a contact in Cairo: His name was on a list of human rights defenders set to be charged for allegedly receiving illegal foreign funding.
He returned home for 24 hours, gave his mother power of attorney over all his assets, and fled to Estonia, where he had residency.
In 2021, after years of shuffling between business ventures, he began working as a TV presenter for el-Sharq, an Istanbul-based TV channel owned by Egyptian opposition figure Ayman Nour, who is also in exile.
He doesn’t know if he will ever be able to go home.
Amal Selim, 54, and Sara Ali, 34, bereaved family
On Aug. 14, Amal Selim’s husband, Mohamed Ali, a hospital administrator and member of the Muslim Brotherhood, left home to go to Rabaa Square. He told her he had to ensure the safe evacuation of women and children. She pleaded with him to stay.
“He said, ‘If I’m fated to die, I’ll die,’” Selim recalled. “He said bye and asked me to forgive him.”
Terrified by reports of gunfire, she called regularly to make sure he was still alive. Sara Ali, her eldest child, was out in Cairo — also checking in on her dad by phone. They were in the middle of a conversation when the line cut out.
When she called back, another man picked up. A sniper had shot Mohamed in the head, he told her.
“He died while I was on the phone with him,” she said.
She called her brother, Omar, a citizen journalist who was documenting the chaos in Rabaa, and told him to find their father’s body. But there was no sign of him at any of the makeshift clinics. Desperate, Sara posted his photo on Facebook and asked for information.
The next day, a man called her from an unknown number and said her father’s body had been thrown into a side street. She and Omar followed his directions.
“I carried my father, I put him in the grave and his blood was on my clothes,” Omar told his mother when they returned home.
After falling into a deep depression, Omar reassured his mother that he would help run the household and raise his two younger sisters. He was studying to be an engineer.
Then, eight years ago, while Omar was at a restaurant with friends, he was arrested by security forces. The family thought at first it was a case of mistaken identity. As time dragged on, they came to believe he was being punished for his father’s political beliefs.
He was eventually convicted of “disclosing military secrets” and sentenced to 25 years in prison with no chance for appeal.
Selim later had a nervous breakdown. She had already lost her husband.
“Suddenly he disappeared, too. It destroyed us all.”
Last summer, Sara began experiencing hallucinations, confusion and language loss. She was admitted to a psychiatric hospital and diagnosed with PTSD.
She still grieves for her father. Sometimes, resentment creeps in. He was the only member of the family who belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood, she said, yet they have all borne the cost.
“There’s no justification for what happened to him,” she said. “But why am I paying for it? Why is my brother spending all these years in prison?”
Lina Attalah, 40, journalist
Memories of Rabaa creep up on Lina Attalah when she least expects them — a sudden squeeze in her stomach, or a flash through her mind as she tries to fall asleep.
She was 30, a journalist who had just c0-founded the independent news organization, Mada Masr. She reported from the Rabaa Square sit-in that summer. She woke up early on Aug. 14 and rushed to the scene with a colleague.
They had no protective equipment. As security forces advanced on the square, the pair were squeezed into a crowd near a field hospital. Attalah remembers the bodies, a man holding a pile of ID cards belonging to the dead, people trying to save each other.
As bullets rained down, they saw a way out. There was no time to think. They held hands and ran.
“The language that I have does not relay the intensity of this event,” she said.
In the months that followed, Attalah poured herself into her work “in order not to fall into the despair.” She understood, even then, that Rabaa was “the beginning of something very morbid.”
Some of her closest friends, including activists and journalists, have been imprisoned. Among them is Alaa Abdel Fattah, who has spent much of the past decade behind bars on charges rights groups say are a sham. Other friends have fled the country or died by suicide.
In 2017, Mada Masr’s website was blocked by the government, but it remains operational. Readers in Egypt find ways to skirt the ban.
Mo can still remember exactly how the men died in front of him.
First, the young one hiding behind a tree, who let out a gasp and collapsed. “When I checked him there was a bullet in his heart,” he recalled. “He was shot by a sniper.”
Then the ambulance driver’s assistant, shot while wearing his medical uniform. “His head was broken in two halves.” His colleague was screaming and crying.
Later, there was the man shot as survivors tried to evacuate, their arms draped over each other’s shoulders. “We had to step over him,” he said.
Mo — a prominent businessman — arrived at the sit-in that day around 6:30 a.m. He did not belong to the Muslim Brotherhood, he said, but was there to protest what he saw as an unjust military takeover.
He was detained and forced to hand over his ID card before leaving the square.
In shock, and fearing that the authorities would come for him, he fled to the United States three days later. He has not been home since.
He spoke on the condition that he be identified by a nickname, concerned about the security of his contacts in Egypt.
In the years that followed, his businesses in Egypt were attacked and burned to the ground. His family was harassed by the government until he agreed to relinquish his remaining assets.
Once among Egypt’s elite, Mo was left to start nearly from scratch in exile. “I gave up everything,” he said.
He sees Rabaa as “the beginning of erasing everything related to 2011,” when Egyptians were united in their hope for a freer society.
Rabaa was a chance, he said, for the military “to flex its muscles,” and to send an unmistakable message: “Nobody is going to have the freedom to think or protest anymore.”