Rabaa, the day after a massacre. The devastation at the site of the six-week long Brotherhood sit-in at the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque in Cairo’s Nasr City was all the more jarring given the carnival that was going on there earlier the week. In addition to the main stage for marriages in the afternoon and political speeches in the evening, there were food vendors, guys frying fish and grilling kofta, coffee shops, a kids play park, music corners, cartoon displays, discussion tents and a media centre beside the mosque that gave its name to the protest.
But on Thursday, after the carnage of the day before, when at least 638 people died during a police and army operation to break up the sit-in here and at Nahda Square in Giza, all that was left was the smouldering detritus of a failed Islamist commune – an Islamist-only version of the Tahrir Square encampment that forced out Hosni Mubarak in February 2011.
Clothes, sandals, prayer rugs, carpets, medical supplies, matresses, books, tinsel, rotting fruit and veg, unused Molotov cocktails, posters of ousted Islamist president Mohammed Mursi, Brotherhood statements, a recently-published political tract titled ‘Military Coups in the View of Islamic Sharia and the Constitution’, a child’s pencil case – just some of the stuff that turned up in the blackened rubble. There was no reek of death, just the putrid smell of rotting garbage – with perhaps just a whiff of moral collapse.
Bulldozers shifted around trying to clear it away in not very effective large scoops, while dozens of people milled around with phone cameras to capture the scale of the destruction. Having bothered to make their way here, most were sympathetic to the army, reeling off slices of the government narrative of a den of militancy whose removal required a major military operation – a Nahr al-Barid on the Nile. Those who had another opinion were shouted down or kept their silence or stayed away.
Next to no one at the Rabaa sit-in saw the attack coming. The government had issued a 24-hour warning on Sunday that passed without incident, similar to previous threats, while a retinue of fogeign dignitaries were in Cairo in recent weeks in attempt to negotiate a way out of the political impasse.
But according to Hassanein Ahmed, the local representative of Tamarrod, the group that paved the way for Mursi’s ouster with a national signature campaign throughout June, Sisi had shown the same cunning with his enemies as former president Anwar Sadat. Sadat launched his surprise war against Israel’s Sinai occupation in 1973.
“It was a first-class military tactic to do this at a time when they least expected any attack. They were even joking on Facebook that there would be no dispersal at all, they were ridiculing (the government),” he said. The protest was not peaceful, he said, because weapons had been found inside the mosque and the police had not used live fire – both claims made Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim on Wednesday evening.
“The Brotherhood tricked the people from the regions in the name of Islam, they gave them money,” he said, referring to the low-income rural nature of many of the protesters, and adding that: “The police said no live fire was used so the investigations will show how the people died.”
The clearing of the tents had revealed a wealth of wall murals and statues celebrating Egypt’s military. Ironically, the sit-in was located in the midst of a district packed full of military installations, some of them backing onto the street by the mosque itself. Along the street wall, Pharaohs were smiting the Hyksos and goodly Muslims entered Egypt bearing Islamic banners. A large poster showed a soldier coddling a child in his arms, while in an elaborate sculpture placed above the wall a soldier towered paternally over a Pharaonic mask, a worker, a peasant woman and some children. A plaque on the wall warned ‘military zone, no photo’.
Soldiers guarded some of the main buildings including the charred mosque, in a half-hearted effort to stop theft or carting off evidence of the Brotherhood’ s nefariousness. The interior ministry claimed it found rotting corpses inside the mosque that the Islamists had for some reason declined to bury for a month.
Ever resourceful, residents of Cairo slum districts had poured in to sift through the mess for something useful. A teenager emerged from what had been the Brotherhood media centre beside the mosque with a blackened catapult and a big smile. The soldier decided to let him pass.
At a large burnt out building next door some two dozen people crowded onto the ornate raised entrance to get a picture, look for booty or rant against the Islamists. A few screamed at the soldiers for having come “too late” to save them from the horror of the Brotherhood nest of sedition. A woman stormed up the building screeching “traitors!” at which a demure Azhari cleric tried to suggest it wasn’t nice “to be happy about us all killing each other”. A woman screamed government praise from inside her passing car, “Thank God Egypt has tough guys!”
There was search for bodies around the building’s basement. “That’s a leg!” a teenager exclaimed. “”It’s just a bunch of shrouds, there’s nothing there,” another answered. Then attention turned to an iron grating at ground level that revealed an office inside. “That was their intelligence HQ!” someone declared, half joking. A fight then broke out over a black bag that turned up in the soggy morass we were talking over. “If there’s a Quran, no one steals it!” someone offered. There was nothing in it but 5 Egyptian pounds, less than $1.
A shopkeeper sitting outside his paint shop further up the road said neighbours called him at 6 in the morning to tell him looters were making off with his air-conditioning system. “The police just stood there doing nothing,” he said, adding the looters had also ripped out electricity cables from the street. Eventually the soldiers decided to make an example of one scavenger, who was pretty harmlessly making off with a bed mattress he got from inside a burnt-out Al Azhar administrative building. He was conspicuously hauled off and thrown in the bag of a van.
Although there was much gloating – a crowd built a small pile of Mursi posters and set them alight, performing a brief jig around the flames for the cameras – the emerging concensus as people interracted was that the Islamists had committed a sin against religion by staging a provocation that obliged the government to crush them, leading to desecretion of Islamic sites and symbols. A man came along with his family to pick up his car, which he had inexplicably survived being left in side-street, only to find two burnt Qurans on his bonnet. “La ilah illa Allah,” he tutted, and placed them daintily on a wall by the pavement before driving off.
A kilometre up the road over a hundred bodies from the carnage were being kept in the Iman Mosque, tucked away in a quintessential middle class street of Nasr City. A large crowd had gathered there, many to find out if their missing relatives were among the dead. Lists of names were posted on large pieces of paper on the fence outside. Anti-government rhetoric blasted from the mosque speaker, and every now and then a coffin would be brought outside the mosque in a flurry of screams and tears, then quickly shoved into a car that would speed off for burial.
The tone had shifted. One man in the garb of a Salafi was broken. He didn’t see any point in even attempting another protest because “they just want to kill us”. “This is injustice. We wake up and find people dying and being killed. We’d be better off getting out and finding another country to live in. They just want to kill us, if we had another sit-in they will just kill us,” he said.
Not long after he spoke the crowd filled out to over a thousand and a huge roar came up and echoed down the street as they all chanted together, ‘Silmiyya maatat‘ – peaceful protest is over.