10 years later: Why Rabaa massacre never went to court
On August 14, 2013, Egyptian security services took up positions around the square where an estimated 85,000 people were protesting the political situation in the country.
There’s plenty of evidence of what happened that day at Rabaa in Cairo: Eyewitness accounts, pictures, videos, even a documentary, “Memories of a Massacre,” that was released this month. But despite all this, those who were there say there has been no real justice to atone for the massacre that happened in Cairo’s Rabaa al-Adawiya square a decade ago. On August 14, 2013, Egyptian security services took up positions around the square where an estimated 85,000 people were protesting the political situation in the country.
The demonstrators were there because earlier in July, the Egyptian military had deposed the recently elected president, Mohammed Morsi, also a high-ranking member of the Islamist-political movement, the Muslim Brotherhood. In response, his supporters began to rally in different parts of the country. According to reports from human rights organisations, almost immediately after telling the crowd in Rabaa to disperse, security forces began firing into the crowd. Although estimates vary, it is thought between 600 and over 1,000 people were killed that day.
After interviewing over 200 witnesses and compiling a 188-page report, Human Rights Watch said the action likely amounted to a crime against humanity. Other rights organisations have described it as one of the worst mass killings of demonstrators in modern history. It is also, they say, one of the most visually documented atrocities in modern history. So why hasn’t anybody ever been held accountable?
The Egyptian government previously called the human rights organisations’ reports on the massacre “biased.” It has not responded to DW questions about whether there was a need for further investigation. Egypt organised its own investigations into the massacre. One was by a fact-finding committee set up in late 2013, and another by the country’s National Council for Human Rights. Both reviews said protesters at Rabaa were at fault because many were armed, something eyewitnesses still dispute. Both conceded that security forces acted with excessive force but did not recommend any charges.
In 2018, Egypt’s parliament passed a bill granting judicial immunity to senior military leaders for acts they may have committed in the course of duty, from when the Egyptian constitution was suspended in July 2013 to when parliament was reconvened in 2016. Then, in 2021, Egypt approved amendments to laws governing its own Supreme Constitutional Court or SCC. These amendments mean that if any international court or tribunal should one day find Egypt guilty of, say, crimes against humanity, and orders reparations, the decision would be passed back to the SCC. This local court would then decide whether the verdict was valid or not.
“[The amendments] send a clear message,” lawyer Mai El-Sadany wrote in a 2021 post for Carnegie Endowment. “To those inside the country … [they] signal that those committing violations may continue to do so while enjoying protection domestically. To the global community, Egyptian authorities are challenging the international system.”
As a result, the search for justice has moved into the international arena for the past decade. But even then, there hasn’t been much success. Human rights organisations have called on the UN Human Rights Committee to investigate the massacre but it has so far chosen not to. Egypt has not fully acceded to the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights, a judicial arm of the African Union. Nor is it a member of the International Criminal Court.