At least 20 civilians were killed in Egypt on Sunday as security forces opened fire on protests marking the fourth anniversary of the Revolution that toppled longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak. Among the victims was 32-year-old poet and activist Shaimaa al-Sabbagh, shot by masked police officers at close range as she and others carried flowers to the uprising's epicenter, Tahrir Square. The New York Times noted that the killings were "a reminder of the ruthless crackdown the military-backed government has used to silence any echoes of that revolt."
For Canadians, the killings might also serve as a reminder that despite the violent crackdown, the Harper government has been far from critical of the regime. In fact, during a visit to Cairo earlier this month, his second in less than a year, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird declared Canada's "strong support" for the Egyptian government, praising its "transition to democracy and the inclusion of human rights and rule of law." Baird also announced increased collaboration with Egyptian security forces, unveiling an aid package that includes $2 million in funding and a new program for Canadian officers to train their Egyptian counterparts. And in what could be interpreted as an open endorsement of the regime's attacks on political opponents, Baird lauded what he called "the significant leadership that the new government of Egypt is taking first in confronting the terrorist acts of the Muslim Brotherhood."
"Far worse than anything under Mubarak"
Baird did acknowledge one snag in his "fruitful" talks with Egyptian counterparts: the over year-long and globally denounced imprisonment of Canadian journalist Mohamed Fahmy, which he described as "the only major irritant in our bilateral relationship."
"It's difficult to comprehend how Baird could consider the Fahmy case, important as it is, 'the only major irritant' in Canada's relationship with Egypt," Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, told VICE. "Egypt is in the midst of the most severe crackdown in recent history—far worse than anything ever experienced under Hosni Mubarak."
Roth has experienced the crackdown first hand. After visiting Egypt freely under Mubarak's three-decade dictatorship, he was denied entry at Cairo International Airport last August. Roth had come to unveil HRW's year-long investigation into the regime's mass killings of demonstrators the summer before, when tens of thousands of Muslim Brotherhood supporters flooded the streets to demand the reinstatement of Mohamed Morsi, Egypt's first democratically elected civilian president. Morsi was ousted in early July 2013 after the Egyptian military seized upon massive street protests against his government. The armed forces installed a junta led by General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, now the Egyptian President.
The HRW probe concluded the Egyptian security forces carried out "systematic and widespread killing" in July and August 2013, claiming at least 1,150 lives and "probably [amounting] to crimes against humanity." In the worst attack, a minimum of 817 people and more likely at least 1,000 were killed on August 14, 2013, when Egyptian forces stormed a pro-Morsi encampment inside Cairo's Raba'a Square. Backed by armed personnel carriers and bulldozers, the Egyptian forces "gave little to no effective warning and opened fire into large crowds, leaving no safe exit for nearly 12 hours."
"What I saw was a bloodbath," Sharif Abdel Kouddous, an Egyptian-American journalist based in Cairo, told VICE. "In the hospital area, people were being brought in dead or dying every few minutes. Men and women, young and old."
After the shootings stopped, large parts of the Raba'a encampment were set ablaze, "probably by security forces," HRW found.
"The smell of death was in the air everywhere," Kouddous says of a makeshift morgue he visited the following day. "Many of the bodies were charred beyond recognition."
Eight police officers were killed during the Raba'a attack. The military regime claimed it opened fire in response to bullets and projectiles from the protesters. But Egypt's Interior Ministry acknowledged that just 15 guns were recovered from a square packed with tens of thousands of people. According to HRW, the low figure suggests "that few protesters were armed and further corroborates the extensive evidence... that police gunned down hundreds of unarmed protesters."
According to Roth, the Raba'a massacre "rivals if not exceeds Tiananmen Square," making it one of the worst attacks on political demonstrators in decades. To date, no officials or military personnel been held accountable for a single death. Instead, the Egyptian government gave bonuses to the officers involved, and even built a monument to the security forces in the centre of Raba'a Square.
"Repression unprecedented in Egypt's modern history"
The climate of brutality and impunity has continued under Egypt's military leaders in the year and a half since. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch recently warned that Egyptian authorities were "engaging in repression on a scale unprecedented in Egypt's modern history."
In addition to Raba'a, Amnesty and HRW found multiple other killings of protesters that left hundreds dead; a "grossly unfair" judicial system that has tried civilians in military courts and sentenced hundreds of people to death at once; the forcible disappearances of dozens of people; the rampant torture of prisoners; and a major assault on free speech and assembly, with thousands locked up "solely as a result of their peaceful exercise of these rights."
The Muslim Brotherhood has been the regime's prime target, with thousands of its members arrested since Morsi's ouster. The party was banned in September 2013 and later deemed a terrorist group, leading the government to seize its assets and take control of its affiliated groups and schools.
The crackdown has also extended to the non-Islamist activists and youths who played a major role in the uprising against Mubarak in 2011 and the protests against Morsi in 2013. A draconian law approved in November 2013 bans public gatherings of ten or more people without prior government approval. Protesters who have defied the ban have been sentenced to prison terms ranging from two to 15 years.
University campuses, one of the last bastions of dissent under the military regime, have also faced heavy repression. After the military crushed street protests in Raba'a and other areas around Cairo in the summer of 2013, student activists continued the resistance by shutting down several major schools. Egyptian forces killed at least 14 students and arrested thousands. El-Sisi reacted with a decree granting himself the power to personally appoint university presidents and department heads, who in turn were granted the authority to kick out students and faculty members at will. When protests resumed this past fall, dozen of students were again swept up in raids.
In addition to Canada's Mohamed Fahmy and his Al Jazeera colleagues, at least eight other reporters remain behind bars. Six TV outlets linked to the Muslim Brotherhood have been raided or shut down. The Committee to Protect Journalists has warned that journalists in Egypt face "unprecedented threats," forcing "independent and critical voices into silence, exile, or prison."
While the Egyptian judiciary acted with some degree of independence under Hosni Mubarak, it has now become a willing partner in the repression, issuing acquittal after acquittal of police officers and former regime members. This includes Mubarak himself, who in November was cleared of ordering the killing of hundreds of protesters during the Egyptian Revolution. He will likely walk free after finishing his current sentence on a corruption conviction, possibly within the next few months.
As with this weekend's anniversary protests, the Mubarak decision led to the killings of demonstrators by state forces. Occasional flare-ups notwithstanding, the protests that propelled the uprising four years ago have all but disappeared. Kouddous, who has covered Egypt since the revolution's first days, says the Raba'a massacre marked the "death knell" for the grassroots activism that forced Mubarak out of power. After the January 25 Revolution, a "surge of collective empowerment coursed through the citizenry, where public policy was guided by the streets or at least pressured in a real way by it," he recalls. But in the period since the el-Sisi-led coup of July 2013, "any and all political space has been closed—all decisions are made by the top."
The el-Sisi regime has justified its crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and other opponents under the familiar rubric of fighting "terrorism." The Egyptian military faces a deadly insurgency from al Qaeda-linked militants in the northern Sinai region, and attacks on state forces have increased since Morsi's ouster in July 2013. There is also no doubt the Muslim Brotherhood engaged in repression, including the torture of political opponents right before the coup. But as Amnesty and HRW noted in June, the current regime "has yet to put forward any evidence to support the [Brotherhood's] terrorist designation, or to link the group to specific terrorist attacks."
Return to stability
Immediately following the July 2013 coup, Canada's public approach to Egypt's police state alternated between tepid equivocation and silence. After hundreds of people were gunned down in Raba'a Square, Baird's Foreign Ministry issued a bland statement that refused to condemn the state forces responsible.
More recently, the milquetoast rhetoric has shifted to outright support. One year ago—just as el-Sisi prepared to run for the presidency—Prime Minister Stephen Harper voiced his open backing of the junta, calling Morsi's ouster a "return to stability." With the elected President removed, Harper explained, Egypt must "transition to democracy"—presumably, a version superior to the one that voted the wrong way. Morsi, Harper explained, had tried to use his democratic victory as a means "to achieve what was in fact going to be an authoritarian Islamic state."
That's a non-starter: Harper seems to prefer governments such as Saudi Arabia—arguably the world's most authoritarian Islamic state—to the point that he currently refuses to guarantee that a $15-billion arms deal with the fundamentalist Gulf oligarchy complies with Canadian law.
Egypt's Harper-approved democratic transition continued in May, when el-Sisi won presidential elections with 96 percent of the vote. Amid a low turnout, the junta promoted democracy by adding a third day of voting on the fly and threatening a $72 fine for any able voter who failed to cast a ballot.
"Egypt's repressive political environment," Democracy International—a US-government-funded group that monitored the vote—observed, "made a genuinely democratic presidential election impossible."
Even the White House, a key backer of the el-Sisi regime, felt compelled to publicly acknowledge "concerns ... about the restrictive political environment in which this election took place." Harper's government had no such qualms. Baird declared that Canada was "encouraged" by "a key step along Egypt's path to democracy," going on to "congratulate President-elect el-Sisi on the results."
"We stand with the Egyptian government and people"
In an email exchange with the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development, VICE posed several questions related to Egypt's human rights record—including Sunday's killings of 20 civilian protesters—and the closer security collaboration announced during Baird's visit to Cairo. None were answered directly. A DFATD spokesperson wrote: "Canada supports Egypt's transition and the continued implementation of Egypt's roadmap to democracy. We stand with the Egyptian government and people in their efforts to build a stable, inclusive, prosperous and democratic Egypt based on respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms and the rule of law."
On whether Canada will use its closer security ties with Egypt to raise human rights concerns, the spokesperson wrote: "In previous meetings with senior Egyptian officials, Minister Baird reiterated the importance that Canada attributes to respecting democratic principles and the human rights of all Egyptians... We will continue to engage with Egypt on a range of issues including regional security and human rights."
Events over just the past few days indicate what that engagement might look like. On Friday, Baird tweeted out a photograph of him and el-Sisi shaking hands at the World Economic Forum in Davos. "Great to have dinner & speak with President el-Sisi last night at a forum on Egypt's Economic Transformation," he wrote. Two days later came the deadly attacks on demonstrators marking the Egyptian Revolution's fourth anniversary. Graphic images that went viral across Egypt showed protester Shaimaa al-Sabbagh bloodied and motionless as friends prop her pellet-riddled body off the ground. As some Western allies voiced concern, Baird chose not to criticise el-Sisi, his dinner companion of just 48 hours earlier. Instead, the Foreign Ministry released a statement declaring "Canada Concerned About Freedom of Expression,"—in Malaysia.
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