The Lasting Significance of Egypt’s Rabaa Massacre
The top of the screen read, in English and Arabic, “Egypt Fights Terrorism.” The Egyptian military, however, was not fighting terrorists but massacring nearly 1,000 supporters of former president of the republic and Muslim Brotherhood leader Muhammad Mursi in Cairo’s Rabaa al-Adawiyya Square on August 14, 2013. In the wake of the military’s July 3 coup that ousted the democratically-elected Mursi, and just days after the largest mass killing in modern Egyptian history, the military led by then-field marshal Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi was working to take control of the narrative.
Nearly a decade since that fateful day, President Sisi’s regime continues to advance its version of events. For the past three years, Egyptian television has broadcast a glossy drama series during the month of Ramadan that aims to recreate the final days of Egypt’s revolutionary moment. Titled Al-Ikhtiyar (The Choice), the show follows the heroic efforts of Egypt’s security forces as they vie to wrest control of the country away from the tyrannical Muslim Brotherhood. Through a mixture of real-life footage and dramatized reenactments starring some of Egypt’s most popular actors, the second season of the series frames the events at Rabaa as a robust yet prudent military force attempting to avoid at all costs a deadly confrontation with a heavily armed mob of religious fanatics.
Now accompanied by an original score, the archival footage is seamlessly woven into choreographed scenes of the assault on the square to ensure that audiences cannot tell fact from fiction. Without a hint of irony, the “choice” being made, according to this narrative, is one of violence by protesters who would tear the nation apart to assert the claims of their leaders and the security forces’ grave decision to respond in kind in a desperate bid to hold the country together. In one particularly evocative scene, a member of the sit-in who implores the other protesters to abandon their fight and leave through the police “safety corridor” is suddenly struck down by a militant’s bullet. Elsewhere, a Muslim Brotherhood sniper who grumbles that he cannot see through the cloud of smoke is ordered to fire anyway, his shots landing on friend and foe alike. Even Rabaa’s martyrs, it would seem, are little more than victims of their own extreme intransigence.
The relentless show of force displayed that day was intended to discredit the notion of mass mobilization writ large in a country where a milyoniyya (million-person protest) had become a commonplace occurrence since the uprising first took root on January 25, 2011.
Left out of official government and state media versions of events is the real goal of the military’s premeditated assault on the anti-coup sit-in, which extended far beyond silencing calls for Mursi’s reinstatement as president. The relentless show of force displayed that day was intended to discredit the notion of mass mobilization writ large in a country where a milyoniyya (million-person protest) had become a commonplace occurrence in the two and a half years since the uprising first took root on January 25, 2011. Not content with crushing its historic foe, the Muslim Brotherhood, the armed forces seek to extinguish every last vestige of revolutionary ambition across the breadth of Egyptian society. The systematic killing of over 1,000 citizens in one day helped pave the way for extreme violence to become a permanent hallmark of this regime: large scale, indiscriminate arrests followed by mass death sentences with little pretense of judicial procedure; the use of torture, disappearances and extrajudicial killings; the widespread destruction of property, seizure of assets and the resulting decimation of social welfare provision.
A Tale of Two Brotherhoods
In the leadup to the first post-coup election in 2014, presidential candidate Sisi famously declared that “there will be nothing called the Muslim Brotherhood under my tenure.” As the war of narratives over the Rabaa massacre has since demonstrated, in fact there are two Muslim Brotherhoods in Egypt today—a fictional one created by the Sisi government and the real-life opposition movement that is now a shadow of its former self.
The Sisi government has conjured a Muslim Brotherhood whose urge to install a totalitarian theocracy and dominate the transition after the fall of President Husni Mubarak in the 2011 popular uprising is the reason that democracy poses far too great a risk for Egyptians to enjoy. This Muslim Brotherhood has served as a convenient scapegoat, to be blamed for everything from the occasional surge in militant violence to the Egyptian national football team’s dreadful display at the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia. Carefully constructed and curated by the regime, this Muslim Brotherhood offers an omnipresent nemesis to justify the state’s continued repression of Egyptian society. In an unprecedented development, late last year Sisi lifted the national state of emergency only to push through constitutional amendments that effectively enshrine previously exceptional security measures in the country’s legal system.
The actual Muslim Brotherhood is a shell of the organization that was a prominent fixture in Egyptian society for much of the previous 50 years. In its present form, it is defined primarily by its victimhood and its unyielding rejection of the regime it holds responsible for an aborted revolution. It is a movement concerned less with its own failures during its brief moment at the pinnacle of the Egyptian state than it is with the dashed hopes of what a full-term Mursi presidency could have achieved. It is a Muslim Brotherhood for whom the clock stopped on August 14, 2013.
A Movement in Crisis, Then and Now
Despite the regime’s dogged efforts to whitewash the massacre, images from Rabaa spread quickly: heavily armed soldiers firing indiscriminately into crowds of unarmed civilians, family members searching for loved ones among the burnt corpses trapped beneath the rubble, the wounded being hauled away from the scattered debris of collapsed tents. On satellite television and on social media, these scenes traveled the world and back again. What was left of the anti-coup alliance transformed the images into symbols, most famously the black on yellow banner featuring the four raised fingers salute referring to Rabaa (meaning fourth in Arabic) that has been carried aloft by heads of state, global human rights activists and political prisoners.
The Rabaa symbol has become arguably more recognizable than the Muslim Brotherhood’s own historic logo, raising old questions about the long-term viability of an organization that appears far more comfortable as a perpetual victim of state repression than as the vanguard of meaningful political change. It is not the first time that the Muslim Brotherhood has found its experience with hardship useful. The movement’s production of a martyrology played a key role in its resurgence during the late 1970s following a two-decade absence from society. Those who challenged the abuses by the regime of President Gamal Abdul Nasser and paid for it with their lives or years of torture in prison were immortalized in memoirs, magazines and leaflets, which in turn were widely distributed to a new generation of youth activists confronting the excesses of state power. Many of them found meaning and legitimacy in the Muslim Brotherhood’s historic struggle, joining its ranks in droves and ushering in a new era of the movement’s activist mission.
But there are crucial differences between the current moment and past commemorations of suffering as an act of validation for the aims of the Islamist movement. In the past, the Muslim Brotherhood overcame internal divisions before it could attract a wider audience. The late 1960s were notable for the heated prison debates between movement traditionalists and followers of the writer and critic Sayyid Qutb, who promoted a radical break from the Muslim Brotherhood’s reformist approach in favor of a more confrontational mission. Under the leadership of general guides Hasan al-Hudaybi and ‘Umar al-Tilmisani, the organization disavowed the militancy of its wayward youth, reaffirmed its gradualist roots and reemerged with a unity of purpose.
By contrast, since 2013 the divisions within the Muslim Brotherhood have only deepened, the cracks exposed for all to see. With much of the imprisoned leadership in total isolation, effective control of the organization rests with a small handful of officials who formed a Guidance Bureau in exile—a historic first for a movement founded in 1928. By 2016 members had formed two competing guidance bureaus in exile, each rejecting the legitimacy of the other. Many within the organization’s rank-and-file membership have demanded accountability for the decisions made by the leadership during the critical two-year political opening that followed Mubarak’s removal. The exiled leaders deflect these calls, preferring to chart a path back to the Muslim Brotherhood’s familiar position as semi-legal opposition that defined it during the Mubarak years. Finding all avenues for a reconciliation with the Sisi regime blocked, however, the predicament has only worsened, with many younger members openly exhibiting a crisis of faith and movement elders doing little to restore belief in the viability, or even desirability, of a political project rooted in an Islamist vision.
Irrespective of the circumstances surrounding the Mursi government’s fall from grace, the Muslim Brotherhood’s inability to implement a coherent political project has left it not only incapable of eliciting broader support but facing some of the most pointed critiques from within its own ranks.
The current crisis also comes on the heels of the failures of the movement’s short-lived and admittedly heavily constrained experiment in governance. For a movement that has claimed to have all the answers for the better part of the last century, this shortcoming is a significant obstacle that was not present in prior eras. During its reconstitution in the 1970s, the Muslim Brotherhood became the leading beneficiary of the collapse of Nasserism, with many youth activists looking to their Muslim faith to fill the void left by the failures of Arab socialism. In the face of economic stagnation, political subjugation and a cataclysmic military defeat at the hands of Israel, the Islamist movement advanced an ideological vision that promised solutions to the country’s most pressing problems. Irrespective of the circumstances surrounding the Mursi government’s fall from grace, the Muslim Brotherhood’s inability to implement a coherent political project has left it not only incapable of eliciting broader support but facing some of the most pointed critiques from within its own ranks.
Ammar Fayed, a critic within the movement, recently argued that an organizational model devised to endure heightened securitization under successive authoritarian rulers could not possibly thrive in a period of newfound political openness. The movement needed to undergo major internal structural changes before it could even begin to ponder a new political vision. Fayed described a crisis of confidence that has shaken large swaths of the movement’s base deflated by the organization’s inability to repel the military coup that overthrew Mursi’s presidency and to forge an adequate response to numerous challenges since.
Long before the events at Rabaa and their aftermath, however, longstanding movement figures left to join or form alternative political parties, while other members scaled back their participation, believing the Muslim Brotherhood’s strength lay in its role as a spiritual movement or in its provision of social services. Still others disagreed with political strategies it adopted throughout the transition period after the 2011 uprising, most notably the movement’s complete reversal of an earlier pledge not to contest the presidential elections. In the face of such organizational disarray, it is difficult for the movement to advance calls for justice for the victims of Rabaa, let alone to pose a credible challenge to the resurgent authoritarianism that has since taken hold in Egypt.
The New Authoritarian Playbook
From the regime’s perspective, by undoing the Muslim Brotherhood’s popular appeal and decimating its organizational capacity Sisi has accomplished what no previous Egyptian authoritarian ruler could. But the zero-sum game against the country’s traditionally most organized opposition has left the regime in a precarious position too since its continued struggle for legitimacy is impeding its pursuit of stability. In firmly taking the reins of the state, the Egyptian military promised to deliver political stability and economic prosperity but has barely managed to produce either.
Over the past nine years, the Sisi government has curiously avoided following the typical playbook that authoritarian regimes resort to after an abrupt usurpation of power. It has not formed a mass political party like the National Democratic Party that Mubarak relied on to pacify the public and dole out benefits, particularly in the latter period of his presidency. On the contrary, Sisi has relied almost entirely on a personal style of politics: The only common feature of Egypt’s parliamentarians is their declared fealty to him. He has also appointed family members and close confidants to sensitive posts rather than expand his ruling coalition by drawing from the ranks of civilian and military elites.
The amount of the national budget now dedicated to repaying Egypt’s debt is double what it was just over a decade ago and far less of the nation’s limited income is dedicated to providing crucial services.
Nor has the regime boosted public spending in sectors critical to the survival of most Egyptians. Rather, Sisi has transformed Egypt into a “beggar state” that relies heavily upon foreign loans to subsidize vanity megaprojects that offer little economic return. The amount of the national budget now dedicated to repaying Egypt’s debt is double what it was just over a decade ago and far less of the nation’s limited income is dedicated to providing crucial services. Less than 1.5 percent of Egypt’s gross national product (GNP) is spent on education, despite the fact that Sisi’s own constitution, passed in 2014, pledged 4 percent of GNP to education. As educational standards in Egypt plummet, private education has seen a massive surge in funding, although it remains limited to the elite in a country where nearly one-third of the population lives in poverty.
Yehia Hamed, who served as investment minister in the Mursi government, recently warned that the regime’s financial mismanagement will likely lead to a crash. “Egypt urgently needs a lifesaving plan,” he warned, one “which radically breaks away from the self-serving and destructive strategies followed by the regime and its international backers over the last decade.” The regime’s systematic cuts to crucial subsidies are adding to the sense of urgency. Beginning in 2014, the state has repeatedly reduced spending across sectors such as energy, transportation and food. Despite intense pressure from international financial institutions, no previous Egyptian government could make significant cuts to food subsidies for fear of public outcry. How has Sisi managed to do so? Looking back at the massacre at Rabaa provides an answer.
In the days and weeks after the massacre, every sector of the state was enlisted in the service of normalizing regime violence. Beyond the military and police forces, this effort incorporated the judiciary, bureaucracy, religious officials and state media. In fact, the consolidation of Sisi’s iron grip rule has resulted in an alarming monopolization of state institutions. In 2016, the ministry of endowments imposed a uniform weekly sermon for all Egyptian mosques, effectively undercutting the autonomy of local preachers in a bid to curb the spread of what it considers extremist ideas. More recently, in a sign of the continued erosion of the civil state, a military general was quietly appointed to the country’s highest judicial body, the Supreme Constitutional Court, which has never had a non-civilian member. The regime’s keen fixation on the role of propaganda has led Egyptian General Intelligence to reportedly help set up and manage United Group for Media Services, which includes Synergy, the company that produced Al-Ikhtiyar. This company owns at least 14 production studios and satellite networks, suggesting that state intelligence agents have a direct hand in delivering more television drama series than any production house currently operating in Egypt. Elsewhere, even the country’s urban planning sector is being driven by security goals, as witnessed in the infrastructure updates to some of Cairo’s oldest neighborhoods. Additionally, the development of Sisi’s pet project—the New Administrative Capital, a $58 billion fortified metropolis 40 miles east of Cairo—is deliberately designed to insulate the regime from future civil unrest.
Cracks in the Wall
All of these troubling developments point to a singular fact: Nearly a decade on from the largest massacre of civilians on record in Egypt, the regime still relies first and foremost on naked coercion as the primary mode of imposing its political will. The 70,000 political prisoners who continue to languish in prison under horrendous conditions attest to the notion that Rabaa signaled the beginning—not the end—of this regime’s propensity for violence. The state’s continued vindictive torment of the imprisoned activist and writer Alaa Abd El-Fattah affirms that Sisi’s list of ideological foes extends far beyond his initially declared war on Islamists. Marking yet another death knell for independent civil society, the reputable Arab Network for Human Rights Information announced in early 2022 that it is shutting down due to ceaseless government harassment of its staff.
The 70,000 political prisoners who continue to languish in prison under horrendous conditions attest to the notion that Rabaa signaled the beginning—not the end—of this regime’s propensity for violence.
A genuinely self-assured state would not need to resort to such tactics to assert its power over society. The continued reliance on brute force signals weakness, not strength, on the part of an authoritarian regime. Nor can the shock value of extreme violence on the order of Rabaa remain a deterrent forever. The sporadic protests in 2019, which broke out after videos released by regime whistleblower Mohamed Ali exposed corruption and cronyism, sent a clear message that no amount of repression could fully prevent popular mobilization. As most observers have noted, Sisi’s so-called National Dialogue announced earlier this year represents little more than a desperate ploy to cover up regime failures and shore up more foreign lenders.
Ultimately, the Sisi government’s lack of a coherent and popularly supported political project means that there exists a perpetual void to be filled by alternative visions for Egypt. The state may have destroyed its most potent historical opposition in the Muslim Brotherhood, but in the absence of a successful political and socioeconomic model, there will always be a significant segment of Egyptians who advocate for a state built on Islamic principles. To guide how that demand manifests and what shape it will take going forward, the Muslim Brotherhood will need to invest in a process of intensive reconfiguration of traditional movement ideals and the creation of a new organizational model better able to package its vision and broaden its appeal. Perhaps most urgently, it will also need to make a strong commitment to healing social divisions, considering the alarmingly high number of Egyptians who cheered on the massacre. As Fayed noted in his critique of the movement, while the Muslim Brotherhood has been historically accustomed to being the enemy of the state, it cannot survive being the enemy of society.
[Abdullah Al-Arian is associate professor of history at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar.]
 Louisa Loveluck, “Sisi Says Muslim Brotherhood Will Not Exist Under His Reign,” The Guardian, May 6, 2014.
 Ibrahim Mansour, “Abu Rida: ‘We Did Not Force Salah to Meet Kadyrov and the Brotherhood are the Cause of the National Team’s Crisis,’” El-Watan, July 3, 2018. [Arabic]
 “Second Symposium: The Case of Egypt—Session 2,” Center for Islam and Global Affairs, Istanbul Sabahattin Zaim University, January 29, 2022.
 Abdullah Al-Arian, Answering the Call: Popular Islamic Activism in Sadat’s Egypt (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014) p. 230–234.
 “Poverty & Equity Brief: Arab Republic of Egypt.” World Bank, April 2021.
 Yehia Hamed, “Egypt is Going to Crash. We Must Act Now to Limit the Chaos,” Middle East Eye, July 11, 2022.