Altercations set the tone of the press conference held by Egypt’s National Council for Human Rights to present findings on the dispersal of the pro-Brotherhood sit-in at Rabea al-Adaweya on August 14 — often described as the bloodiest day in the country’s modern history.
The government-appointed council faulted security forces for failing to prevent deaths more than carrying out the killings, and primarily shifted blame to armed protesters. The body barely mentioned the military’s role in dispersing demonstrators, who were calling for deposed President Mohamed Morsi’s reinstatement, and was unable to gather much testimony from those present at the sit-in.
The total death tally of the dispersal, according to the council, was 632 — eight of them security personnel. Independent rights groups have put the number at up to 1,000.
But initial tension at the press conference had little to do with the content of the anticipated report, or political schisms in the country, and more to do with the perceived disrespect in an over two-hour wait.
George Ishaq, one of the council’s members and one of the first to arrive, moved around the Fairmont Nile City Hotel ballroom trying to calm people down. “We have been working since 10 am,” Ishaq repeated several times in the council’s defense.
The atmosphere was tense as journalists shouted that the wait was unacceptable, that they also have work to do and that there are people who work more than one job.
Before long, other accusations began flying that the delay was due to report tampering.
After apologizing, NCHR head Mohamed Fayek explained that the council had been putting the finishing touches on the report and checking for any inaccuracies.
“We wanted it to be as precise and accurate as possible,” he said, describing the issue as important and concluding that he was happy with the “integrity and independence” of the report.
Council member Nasser Amin requested that the attendees hold their questions until the end of the presentation, which he largely delivered.
When the time came, surprisingly, there was not a single friendly question from state or privately owned media.
A red laser pointer in hand, Amin went through the council’s account of that bloody day with a computer-simulated presentation, interspersed with videos. Icons representing protesters, tanks and security forces, flashing red and green dots and arrows, sound effects and a counter indicating the time of day illustrated the narrative. He then went on to describe the report’s findings in terms of violations “by all parties” and the council’s recommendations.
According to this account, “exceptional” violence started when armed protesters fired at security forces. Notably, Amin said that the safe passage for protesters to be able to leave the sit-in was not secured until 3 pm. By 1 pm, however, before a brief lull in the fighting that lasted an hour, Amin said 300 had been killed.
Eleven bodies were found, the council said, nine at Rabea and two at the site of the Nahda sit-in in Giza (in addition to another three in a dumpster at Omrania) showing signs of torture and cruelty. Testimonial accounts, Amin said, supported the evidence that torture occurred at Rabea.
While the sit-in began as a peaceful one, organizers allowed the entry of weapons and armed individuals without letting the other protesters know. The council maintained that the majority of the demonstrators remained peaceful.
In addition to torture and the bearing of arms, the council listed among violations at the 46-day protest the incitement of violence, hatred and killing from Rabea’s platform.
Armed protesters used civilians for protection, moving among them and hiding behind them, Amin said. A number of video clippings were shown to illustrate this point. These men committed both the crime of firing on security forces, according to the report’s findings, and of “using civilians as human shields.”
The presence of armed protesters resisting the authorities and security personnel necessitated the use of force, Amin said. The report found that security forces managed mostly to maintain relativity, and that while the type of arms used was proportionate, at times the extent of violence was not.
Delays in securing the safe passage designated by the Interior Ministry were due to fighting in the vicinity, which both prevented people from leaving and confused sit-in participants, the council found. The body criticized security forces for failing to implement a contingency plan, saying the fighting should have been anticipated.
The council was not given access to the ministry’s plan for control and dispersal of the sit-in, and according to Amin’s answers to the press on this point, did not ask for it. According to a report in privately owned newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm, however, there was anger within the council regarding the lack of cooperation of the government, in particular the Interior and Health ministries.
The council also criticized security forces for not giving protesters sufficient time after warnings to evacuate and for preventing injured protesters from receiving treatment.
No mention was made of the army, however. When asked about this, Amin said that military forces secured the area but did not participate in the dispersal itself, and as such, “it is not relevant to mention the army.”
In the council’s account, the presence of armed individuals was the primary cause of the bloodshed that occurred on August 14.
“It was if the protesters killed each other,” one journalist said — to applause from other attendees.
While the council repeatedly emphasized its impartiality and integrity, and its commitment to documenting violence on all sides, journalists demanded to hear about the violations of the security forces. When Amin responded that it was all in the videos, journalists called for videos of the police.
One state-owned channel asked about reports that families were not allowed to take the bodies of the dead unless they signed a statement that the person had committed suicide. An employee from privately owned CBC channel questioned the ability of the council to be impartial.
The council said it had problems getting Rabea demonstrators to cooperate or testify. Council member Mohamed Abdel Qaddous, who has connections to the Muslim Brotherhood, nominated supporters of the group to testify, but reportedly they all refused.
Journalists also questioned the impartiality of the council on the basis that it contains members who are fiercely anti-Brotherhood.
Among the council’s recommendations are an independent investigation identifying those responsible for violations, the prosecution of the perpetrators, legislation against incitement to violence and immediate training of security forces to international standards. It also called for compensation for the families of victims who did not commit violence.
In December, 13 Egyptian and international human rights organizations called for an independent investigation into the dispersal of the Brotherhood sit-ins, so that security forces can be held accountable for “excessive and unjustified use of lethal force.” They called for the government to establish an independent fact-finding committee that would have the authority to summon officials and witnesses and issues a public report.
The lack of independent investigation is part of a general failure, the groups said, “to take any meaningful steps toward truth-seeking and justice in relation to allegations of gross human rights violations by security forces over the past three years.”
The National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) began its investigations in September. In its statement, the organizations pointed out that “like any other human rights organization, the NCHR can only request information from the Interior Ministry and has no authority to access its documents or to summon security officers for questioning, and is therefore no replacement for an official fact-finding committee.”
The full report, the council announced, would be released on March 16. A 10-page pdf of a summary of the report was made available at the press conference.
Al-Masry Al-Youm claimed before the press conference to have obtained a copy of the full report and wrote on Tuesday that it has been ready since mid-January, but was held from publishing so that it wouldn’t affect the constitutional referendum or be exploited by the Brotherhood. There was debate within the council, the newspaper reports, about the timing of publication.
If the reception of the council’s findings at a press conference in one of Cairo’s top hotels is anything to go by, whenever the report comes out it will be met with criticism across the board.