Editor's note: The names of some individuals present at the sit-in have been changed for their protection. This story was originally published on Feb. 26, 2014.
It began with the sound of whistles in the dark. Civilian guards on the makeshift barricades had seen armored vehicles rolling toward the sleeping protesters, and raised the alarm.
Then, an announcement from the vehicles: "The security forces ask residents of this neighborhood to close all windows and balconies. Stay inside your houses during the clearance of this sit-in."
Two streets away from east Cairo’s Rabaa al-Adaweya Square, where she’d spent the night with tens of thousands of others, 31-year-old Asmaa Shehata saw a young man on foot pelting toward her car. “It’s started,” he bellowed. It was 6 a.m.
By the end of the day on Aug. 14, 2013, more than 900 people would die inside the encampment, plunging Egypt into turmoil. It was the deadliest day in the history of Egypt's republic.
The fallout from the massacre has poisoned the country’s post-revolutionary politics, locking Egypt’s military-backed authorities and the Muslim Brotherhood into a battle for survival that has devastated families, hardened sectarian tensions, and facilitated the rise of Islamic militancy.
But six months later, the truth about what happened in Rabaa al-Adaweya Square is hotly contested.
This GlobalPost reconstruction — based on eyewitness interviews, visits to the scene, first-hand observation on Aug. 14, and an examination of video and photographic evidence — shows that thousands of peaceful demonstrators were trapped inside the camp as security forces mounted often indiscriminate attacks on the crowds.
From coup to sit-in
The sit-in had begun in July, with the military’s overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. His opponents cheered the removal of what they saw as an authoritarian theocrat. But his supporters felt desperately aggrieved that their greatest achievement of Egypt's 2011 revolution — the election of an Islamist president — had been snatched away.
By August, a smattering of tents in Rabaa had morphed into an entire community, complete with stage, a market place, and table tennis. The square was surrounded by residential buildings in the heart of east Cairo.
Human Rights Watch calculated that Rabaa and its environs housed at least 85,000 protesters in early August. Muslim Brotherhood families thronged the square. Many had travelled from across the country to be part of the labyrinthine encampment, which stretched for almost a kilometer east to west.
This was the Morsi supporters' stronghold. They said they would not leave until they had achieved the impossible: their president's reinstatement.
More than 100 demonstrators died during a police attack on the site on July 8 and clashes around its fringes on July 27, hardening their resolve to fight against the authorities. Afterward, their numbers swelled.
Many of the neighborhood’s permanent residents wanted the camp dispersed. There were rumors about what was happening inside — that the square was awash with weapons; that passers-by had been kidnapped, tortured, and accused of espionage. Speeches blaring from the Rabaa stage were often sectarian, blaming Egypt’s Christians for the misfortune of Islamists.
In the weeks leading up to Aug. 14, Egyptians officials warned that Rabaa was soon to be cleared, but promised a gradual and controlled dispersal with safe exits provided for the thousands staying at the square.
A statement issued by Egypt’s interior ministry as the clearance began said the ministry was moving on both Rabaa and a second smaller encampment in west Cairo "to protect citizens' security. … It will provide safe exit for protesters and will not pursue them, except those who are wanted by prosecutors. The ministry is keen not to shed any Egyptian blood."
But police warnings that the clearance was about to start were delivered only minutes before the tear gas. Within ten minutes, the live-fire started. The promised safe exits were often unreachable due to heavy gunfire.
The demonstrators were mostly unarmed. A small group of men launched a fight back with a limited supply of guns, as well as Molotov cocktails and stones, from an unfinished building on the camp’s southern flank, and in response, police unleashed lethal and indiscriminate force on the sit-in as a whole.
It is unclear who fired the first shots. But evidence gathered by GlobalPost indicates that security forces disproportionately deployed live ammunition against protesters rather than tear gas, water cannons, or other standard crowd-clearing tools.
When Human Rights Watch interviewed eyewitnesses and health workers a week after the attack, the organization found no evidence to suggest that firing by protesters justified the quick resort by police to massive lethal force against largely unarmed protesters. It described the clearance as “the most serious incident of mass unlawful killings in modern Egyptian history.”
This is the story of how those ten hours unfolded. In addition to the deaths of more than 900 protesters inside Rabaa Square, the clearance would spark retaliatory sectarian violence against Christians across the country.
No safe exits
For Mohamed Salem, the clearance started with frantic whistling and the banging of metal shields on each barricade.
Standing by his tent on Tayaran Street, the camp's northern exit, the 19-year-old student heard police reassurances at 6:30 a.m. that demonstrators would be granted safe exit through two routes.
But within minutes, the sound of bullets cracked down the street.
The first exit security forces had promised, Tayaran Street, was on the southern side of the sit-in. The second ran along the western section of Nasr Road. But it quickly became clear that police had little intention of making it easy for protesters to leave.
Intense tear gas and gunfire from security forces made moving toward Tayaran Street impossible for many, and the exit on Nasr Road difficult to reach.
But there was also pressure to stay put. From the camp's central stage, Brotherhood leaders shouted that the promise of safe exit was a trap.
Tayaran Street was in an uproar, Mohamed remembers. Most people ran back toward the center of the square. Others ducked into the tents that lined the road or broke shards of pavement to throw at the phalanx of troops standing behind armored bulldozers and personnel carriers.
Moving through one of the few side streets not lined with troops, Asmaa Shehata re-entered the square. At points, she remembers, white tear gas turned the air almost opaque.
Sit-in leaders continued to shout from the stage. “Do not leave! Do not leave!”
Amid the chaos, Mohamed saw an old man rooted to the spot where he stood. "We screamed at him to move, but he stayed where he was," the student remembers. "When I ran forwards to grab him, I realized why he'd stopped."
In front of the old man lay the body of his son. He had been shot in the head.
As of the beginning of the clearance, police had sealed all entrances to the square. Journalists were barred from documenting the melee. Many did not manage to enter until mid-afternoon, accessing the site through the neighborhood's maze-like side-streets. Four were killed, including veteran Sky News cameraman Mick Deane.
A doorway filled with corpses
By 7 a.m., the first fatalities had reached Rabaa's makeshift field hospital, in the center of the encampment. There, the job of documenting the dead fell to Asmaa, who usually worked as journalist.
"Early on when there were only a few martyrs, I took many photographs of each person," she says, "but then the floodgates opened."
Bullets had drilled large holes through the skulls of dozens of protesters. In one of Asmaa’s photographs, a man's brain has slipped out across the field hospital's bloodied floor.
Yet the interior ministry still claimed that live ammunition wasn't used. In a statement that evening the ministry insisted that police had used only tear gas against protesters.
When questioned by GlobalPost last week, the interior ministry modified its account, saying that live ammunition had in fact been used, but on a limited scale and only against those carrying automatic weapons.
As she photographed the 39th corpse, Asmaa's camera battery ran out. Seeking an electrical socket and a moment of solace, she crossed the narrow passage from the triage tent to Rabaa’s media center, a space from which the camp's spokesmen had launched a media war against Egypt’s new military-backed authorities.
She remembers hearing, as she moved, the continuous sound of bullets slamming into walls and trees in the surrounding streets.
Asmaa pushed, but the media center door wouldn't open at first. Too many bodies were stacked against it.
Inside, it was chaos. "Wherever I looked, I could see people holding bandages for others as they tried to stitch people on the floor. Other people were just kneeling there, holding hands with the casualties until they died," she said.
The unfinished building
Back on Tayaran Street, 19-year-old Mohamed joined the fight on the side of the protesters.
His tent at Rabaa was stationed in front of an unfinished building, known to protesters as the Muneyfa building. Seven stories high, this concrete skeleton was the nerve center of the resistance.
Mohamed joined a gathering crowd at the entrance, smashing sections of the pavement with which to arm themselves. They threw chunks of concrete rapidly, and in waves. "Even if the man next to me was shot, I knew we couldn't stop," he says.
The claim that a significant number of protesters were heavily armed lies at the center of the interior ministry's justification for what happened inside Rabaa on Aug. 14.
“This was a proportionate response, just targeting those who used live ammunition against policemen,” General Hani Abdel Latif, the ministry spokesman, told GlobalPost last week. The interior ministry has repeatedly insisted that the clearance took place in accordance with internationally accepted crowd control standards.
By contrast, testimonies from inside the Muneyfa building and publicly available video evidence suggest there were no more than a dozen guns in the hands of the protesters. Across the rest of the square, testimonies and video evidence show that some protesters carried clubs and several fired guns at the security forces.
But the vast majority were unarmed.
The disproportionate nature of the police response is clear from the numbers alone.
Egypt's forensic authority says 627 bodies were brought to the official morgue or hospitals. That number excluded bodies buried directly by their families. The Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights has compiled a list of 904 names of people killed in the dispersal. Some NGOs believe the number to be higher still.
Early health ministry figures suggested that only eight of those killed in side Rabaa al-Adaweya were policemen. Human Rights Watch later raised the number to nine.
The fight intensifies
Shortly after midday on Aug. 14, an exchange of heavy gunfire between police and those at the Muneyfa building shattered a lull in the fighting. From his vantage point in an alley on the western entrance, a local resident watched the fighting as it intensified.
Across the street, he saw a young police officer sink to the pavement and stare blankly at the carnage.
When the resident tried to enter the sit-in to help carry out the wounded, another officer shrieked that he must stay where he was. The look on the officer’s face was one of shame, the resident said. He was shaking.
As the fighting wore on and police continued to advance, women and children huddled under tarpaulin tents.
The Egyptian media would later say that Brotherhood leadership had encouraged families to stay in the square until the last minute, rendering them human shields.
Rabaa’s mosque became a hiding place for hundreds more, although the space grew increasingly cramped as makeshift morgues overflowed and fresh corpses were moved to the prayer hall.
But in the center of the camp, 34-year-old Yasmine Abdel Fattah refused to find shelter. The mother of three was searching for her husband, Ahmed. He’d been missing for three hours.
Moving quickly, she snatched a glance at the notional safe exit on the western stretch of Nasr Road. Armored bulldozers crept past burning tents. Some had been lit by protesters; others burst alight when blisteringly hot tear gas canisters made contact with the flammable awnings.
"Muslim Brothers were shouting at me to move fast and find shelter," says Yasmine. "But I kept stopping to ask if anyone had seen my husband. I felt frantic. No one knew where he was."
Under a white shroud on the third floor of the Rabaa medical center, she found him. He'd been shot three times.
Ahmed, an engineer, was with colleagues when he died. They say he was shot at point-blank range by a police officer. Forensic officials confirm that he was hit in his back and side with live ammunition, fired within close quarters.
Yasmine was allowed only the briefest of goodbyes to her husband's lifeless body. New corpses needed to be laid to rest in the space where she stood.
By mid-afternoon, Rabaa’s volunteer doctors had been overwhelmed. Equipment and drugs were in short supply, and ambulances had stopped entering the encampment after a paramedic was shot dead.
For those inside the medical center, moving the injured to safety now involved braving a corridor of gunfire, to reach the ambulances stationed on the sit-in’s southern flank.
For some, the desperate gamble paid off. Others were not so lucky. Standing behind the medical center on Mohamed Mandour Street, this reporter saw three casualties shot dead on their makeshift stretchers. In a fourth incident, a stretcher-bearer took the bullet.
As his wounded charge rolled to the ground, he too was shot in the head. The bullets appeared to be coming from the surrounding rooftops.
Shortly after 3:30 p.m., police finally took control of the Muneyfa building. They made arrests on every floor, and multiple eyewitnesses inside the building allege that beatings followed.
Mohamed was on the second floor when police entered. He remembers the screams of his fellow fighters. "They were writhing, screaming as if they were dying," he says. In fact, they were. "Almost no one survived on the ground floor."
With resistance from the Muneyfa building extinguished and Tayaran Street secured, police swept easily into the center of the sit-in, entering the mosque, field hospital and medical center.
Asmaa, the journalist, was inside the medical center when police entered. She describes how men and women were ordered into separate lines, then escorted outside with their hands above their heads.
After hours spent sheltering indoors, she was ill-prepared for what she saw next. Charred bodies scattered the blackened ground like driftwood. Police escorted ragged groups of protesters away from the carnage.
Along Nasr Road streamed a constant flow of protesters, many limping, others crying. Some people carried corpses. "As we carried out the dead, the residents were laughing," says Asmaa. "They were cheering and chanting, some were ululating.”
Over the months, the sit-in had grown deeply unpopular among locals. Many were scared by the trouble and disruption it brought to the neighborhood.
But Asmaa was surprised, nevertheless: "After all that killing, I couldn't believe that our countrymen could have grown so estranged that they would take pleasure in such a tragedy," she says.
After the massacre
Thousands emerged from the square to learn that the killings had triggered spasms of retaliatory violence across the country. Mobs chanting sectarian slogans torched and ransacked Christian establishments — 65 churches and monasteries were attacked. Pro-Morsi demonstrators, sometimes heavily armed, clashed with police for hours.
By nightfall, a curfew was in place in 14 governorates across Egypt. Inside Rabaa, the mosque, field hospital and medical center were engulfed in flames.
The events of Aug. 14, 2013 ruptured Egypt's post-revolutionary politics. They marked the end for prospects of reconciliation between the embattled and intransigent Muslim Brotherhood and the increasingly repressive military-backed authorities that pushed Morsi from power.
The Egyptian authorities have yet to establish a public record of what occurred that day. The prosecutor's office has not prosecuted a single member of the security services for excessive and unjustified use of lethal force.
Over the past six months, Morsi supporters have adopted a four-fingered salute, often depicted as a black hand on a yellow background, to remember those who died inside Rabaa al-Adaweya. In Arabic, Rabaa means "fourth."
As part of a far-reaching crackdown on the Brotherhood, displaying the sign is now a punishable offense.
Editor's note: The language in this piece regarding the clashes on July 8 and July 27 has been updated to clarify the reciprocal nature of the violence on July 27. The Aug. 14 Rabaa Square body count from Egypt's forensic authority has been changed from 726 to 627, to distinguish between the bodies the forensic authority counted for Rabaa and the bodies the forensic authority counted for another protest camp on the same day. The independent counts for Rabaa on Aug. 14 remain at 904 and higher.