I Toured Cairo’s Muslim Brotherhood Protest Camps Just Before the Military Crackdown
Aug 14 2013
Men walk by posters of Mohamed Morsi and martyrs at the Muslim Brotherhood sit-in at Rabaa Al-Adawiya Mosque, days before the military stormed the camp. All photos by Mat Wolf
This morning, the Egyptian Army finally followed through on threats it had been making for days and launched a full-scale assault on Muslim Brotherhood protest camps, including the main one at at Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque in Cairo’s Nasr City district. For the past month, thousands of supporters of recently deposed Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi had been holding sit-ins to protest his ouster by the military after widespread protests, and even before this latest incident, there had been clashes between government security forces and protesters that left as many as 130 dead. The Egyptian government claims 13 people have been killed in today’s violence, but that number is probably much too low. Protesters fleeing the sit-ins fought back by throwing stones and bottles and lighting fires, but obviously they are no match for the army’s machine guns, tanks and tear gas.
In the days leading up to the brutal crackdown, Egypt’s liberals called for the military to act more aggressively on the sit-ins, and the Rabaa camp was accused of being a terrorist camp harbouring foreign fighters where immoral sexual activities and child abuse took place. Though some international organisations refuted those claims, Amnesty International found evidence that the Brotherhood was torturing their political opponents. Some protesters decided to push back against these rumours by inviting anyone who was interested to come in and have a look around.
Last week, while protesters were preparing for their inevitable confrontation with the army, I went on the Rabaa Tour, a youth-centric, English-language showcase of the Brotherhood sit-in. It was an attempt to circumvent traditional media channels, which are largely controlled by the government (just after Morsi was pushed out of office, Islamist TV stations were taken off the air). The tour’s founder, Mohamed Zain, joined with about 15 other Brotherhood supporters a few weeks ago to set up the tour along with a slick Facebook page that featured videos and photos of protesters and the tagline “Heard enough? Time to see.”
A man holds a sign praising Mohamed Morsi and calling for the death of General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the commander of Egypt's armed forces.
“A lot of rumours are being spread across the media, local media specifically,” Mohamed told me. “[They claim] the sit-in is armed, we have weapons inside, we’re violent and the government right now is at war against terrorism, which is actually not true.”
Mohamed was a far cry in appearance and attitude from the stereotypical image of a long-bearded member of the Brotherhood. When I spoke to him, the 27-year-old, who’s a pharmacist by training, was dressed in a plaid shirt and blue jeans and never took his phone’s ear bud out. He said he’s not even that political and that he’s in favour of the sit-in because he can’t support the nondemocratic military coup that ousted Morsi. He also insists that most of the camp is like him: not so much pro-Brotherhood as anti-coup. He estimates only a quarter of those at the sit-in are members of the Muslim Brotherhood.
“A lot of the people who are participating in the sit-in aren’t political, they’re not coming from a political perspective,” he said. “They’re coming from a human rights perspective, to practice democracy.”
I had the chance to walk around the encampment unaccompanied before I spoke to him, and I have to say that it seems like Mohamed was downplaying the Brotherhood presence. Not everyone with a beard belongs to the Brotherhood, but the camp was hardly populated by progressive, secular democracy advocates. Signs calling for the execution of Egyptian Army head General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi were held high, as were banners proclaiming that the coup was a plot hatched by Zionists and Americans. (These kinds of accusations and demands aren’t uncommon at other anti-Morsi protests.)
The outskirts of the camp were being fortified with hasty barricades of brick, sandbags and even concrete in anticipation of the coming showdown with the military. I saw many women and children, and, bizarrely, a giant bounce pit and a kiddie pool near one of the main entrances. The kids looked like they were having fun, but the inflatable playground right next to the barricades didn’t do anything to counter rumours that the women and kids are being kept here as human shields. I didn’t see any weapons though, or signs of torture rooms, and to be honest, the Brotherhood guys were actually pretty friendly and nonconfrontational. Everyone who entered was frisked for weapons, but the middle-aged bearded man conducting my pat-down apologised that it was necessary and even shook my hand when he finished.
Except for the banners, for the most part the camp could have been a really depressing county fair. There were food and drink stand set up on the curbs, and a lot of canvas and plastic tarp tents sitting out in the midday heat, under which most of the protesters lounged. Children ran about spraying people with water bottles. Pick-up games of soccer and volleyball, along with continuous, mostly gender-segregated marches seemed to be the major activities outside of reinforcing barricades. It's hard to believe that this was an encampment full of violent terrorists as the Brotherhood’s opponents and the government alleged.
The tent that served as the Rabaa Tour's headquarters, which was covered with illustrations of martyrs.
When I originally reached out to Rabaa Tour I was told to meet Mohamed at the “big white tent covered in the faces of martyrs”. They said it would be easy to find, but this wasn’t the case – I had a lot of big white tents covered in the faces of martyrs to choose from. When I finally found the right tent I walked in to a space filled with benches lined up in front of a flatscreen TV the tour uses to show videos of military injustices. The bloated and bloodied portraits of martyrs killed and injured by government forces were hung along the sides of the tent, along with what I was told were the blood-covered sneakers of one of the shooting victims.
Mohamed introduced me to Omaima Halawa, 21, and Noha El Eraki, 22, two Egyptian women who have spent much of their lives living and studying in Ireland but came back to Egypt to participate in the protests. Omaima said (in perfect, Irish-accented English) she was here of her own free will and isn’t a human shield, and added that she butted heads with her parents when she insisted on coming. For her, protesting at Rabaa al-Adawiya wasn't just a right but a duty.
“The idea is that we’ve practiced democracy in Ireland and so not being able to practice it here, I was sort of like, Oh my God, we have to wake up, this is actually serious!” she told me. “Even if we’re not political, this is about a democracy situation right now… it’s about our rights as humans.”
Noha also reinforced Mohamed’s thesis that the sit-ins weren't exclusively about supporting the Brotherhood.
“I don’t really want to say anything bad about [the Muslim Brotherhood], but I don’t always agree with them. We have small disagreements; I’m not willing to commit myself to them,” she said. “I don’t know why they go around making this about the Muslim Brotherhood – it’s so far beyond that, it’s much bigger than that.”
A display of photographs of martyrs killed and wounded by government forces inside the Rabaa Tour tent.
After we left the tent I was told I could go wherever I wanted, but I should definitely check out the medical center and the main stage area. According to the tour guide, it’s under this stage that Rabaa al-Adawiya critics claimed the camp hides its weapons and torture cells. Of course, there were no weapons there, at least not when I visited, just sleeping quarters. One of the men inside told me the weapon stories are a joke; in fact, it’s the anti-Morsi camp in Tahrir Square that’s armed, he said. I replied that I’ve been to that camp too, and didn’t see any weapons. He shrugged. Like the banners about Zionists, these kind of accusations seem to be part of the general milieu of distrust in Egypt.
I visited the makeshift field hospital next and spoke to Ahmed Abu Zeid, a British-trained doctor who told me all about the horrors of the police shootings. “The first patient I had was a 16-year-old boy shot between his eyes… that’s not an accident, that’s a sniper,” he said. He pointed to his head, then to his chest, and said that every wound he treated was in one of those places, proof that the police were aiming for “kill zones.”
“I couldn’t save him, he died,” Ahmed said of the 16-year-old. “I came back from [the operating room] and found five or six patients waiting for me, all with direct gunshots to their heads. It was far beyond our capabilities.”
Children play on playground equipment. Some have alleged that the Muslim Brotherhood has women and children in the camp to act as human shields.
Most the other stops on the tour were innocuous, even a little goofy. Mohamed took me to one man who was raising chickens and ducks in the camp and who’s made a display saying even his birds are against the coup. The Egyptians surrounding the stand found this hilarious, but the humour was lost on me.
My visit coincided with the final day of Ramadan fasting, and I was invited to attend the evening’s iftar meal. I gorged on chicken and goat along with the Rabaa Tour volunteers and their friends and families. Many of them live and study in Ireland and England, and it was a friendly, young, intellectual crowd. They came across as concerned citizens who were appalled that the democracy they were promised in 2011 and the government they voted for in 2012 were both swept away in a military coup. If these were the terrorist torture mercenaries the government made them out to be, instigators so dangerous that they needed to be dealt with using the maximum amount of force available, they were hiding their true identities really well. I hope they are safe now.
Mat Wolf is a Cairo-based freelance journalist who focuses on themes of culture, conflict, religion and politics. He hails from the American Pacific Northwest.
More on Egypt: