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Rabea: How do we live with ourselves after witnessing a massacre?

I vividly remember the day the Rabea al-Adaweya sit-in was violently dispersed; not because I was obsessively following the news, but because I was traveling early in the morning that day and happened to see some of what was going on by chance.

I remember seeing tanks, which, at that point I had become somewhat accustomed to seeing. I saw a large cloud of smoke, and a lot of security forces closing off the area. I didn’t think much of it at the time, as it was around 7 or 8 am, and I didn’t imagine they would violently disperse a protest that early in the morning. We had become far more used to nighttime attacks.

Most Egyptians, including myself, have constructed their own narratives around Rabea in order to deal with what happened.

Although I live in close physical proximity to Rabea al-Adaweya, at the time of the sit-in I still felt distant, like this was happening on another continent. This was a different feeling to how I’ve felt multiple times over the last five years, when I have been physically far from Egypt, but somehow felt as if events were taking place right outside my window and obsessively followed the news. Looking back at the events of August 2013 now, I’m not sure if it was a conscious choice or a coping mechanism to shut out what was happening right outside my window.

It was only this year, four years on, that I started to talk about Rabea. It took me a while to name it, to accept that a massacre happened around the corner from where I live, went to school, and pass by every day. It took me a while to acknowledge that in this very street, more than a thousand people died during the day, some of them burned alive in my unremarkable residential area. I learned the hard way that naming things makes them more real, and this reality weighs heavily on me. I have tried to talk to people about what happened that summer, and have discovered that most Egyptians, including myself, have constructed their own narratives around Rabea in order to deal with what happened.

The first narrative, and perhaps the most widespread, is that the Muslim Brotherhood is the root of all evil and therefore brought this on themselves. This rhetoric was exploited by both the regime and fed by the media, with people calling on President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to “squash the brotherhood” (“ofrom ya Sisi”). The dehumanization of Islamists and the Brotherhood in particular peaked that summer and enabled people to justify all kinds of violence against them. This is often linked to a victim-blaming mentality that we see elsewhere in society, for example with gender-based violence, in which it is easier to blame the victim than one’s self. Interestingly this is often the perspective of those who have witnessed violence first hand, as empathizing with the victim in this case is often more painful. A story was recounted to me by an eyewitness of an elderly man that was suspected of being an Islamist after Rabea and was beaten to death in one of Egypt’s Delta governorates. Several onlookers tried to intervene in vain, yet these were some of the same people who had gone door-to-door instigating against the Brotherhood in August 2013 and justified the deaths of hundreds more people they had somehow managed to dehumanize.

We all saw how the polarization of 2013 split many Egyptian families, including my own, down the middle. In some cases, people who had supported Sisi also lost relatives or friends in Rabea. How then does one live with oneself? — By believing the narrative that the state has been propagating even before Sisi came to power: The narrative of the “honorable citizen” (“al-mowateneen al-shorafaa”), who dutifully defended the nation in its war against “terrorism.” We also saw this in Maspero, as we watched a state TV anchorwoman call upon honorable citizens to support their army.

The second prominent narrative is that the events of 2013 were all a big conspiracy that is larger than all of us, and that we have limited political agency. In this vein, we are mere pawns in a larger game, and no matter how we might have reacted to Rabea, it would really have made no difference. In a way, it is a relief to believe this, as it means one can evade personal responsibility. This train of thought has its roots in the defeat and disappointment many have felt following revolution and counterrevolution since 2011 in Egypt, when, as we have learned, there were many internal and external forces at play. While comforting, it is also a particularly disempowering and immobilizing narrative that allows one to be politically apathetic with little or no guilt — when you know that nothing you do matters, then you don’t feel any guilt if you do or don’t do anything.

The third narrative is crippling guilt — a persistent narrative, particularly among activists who also oppose/d the Brotherhood, or at least didn’t express solidarity with Rabea until it was too late. This feeling of having blood on one’s hands perhaps stems from an illusion of too much agency, and is therefore problematic on many levels. To imagine yourself to be responsible for events beyond your control can be a result of an inflated ego. Many of us who were involved in the revolution of 2011 had imagined we were somehow in control of the future of our country, even though we had little or no actual power. This perspective also negates a complex history in which many powerful players had their own agendas, choices and political visions. It is a narrative that has also been propagated by the Brotherhood and its supporters, who have labeled all those who opposed them as regime collaborators, exacerbated by a crackdown on Islamists by the state and security forces that has coopted millions through the rhetoric of a “war on terror.”

Rabea cannot be seen as a singular event, but should be viewed as a key moment within almost two-and-a-half years of state-sponsored violence up until that moment, in which Egyptians had to a great extent normalized images and videos of violence and death, from Tahrir, to Maspero, to Mohamed Mahmoud, to Port Said. Over time, our reactions changed and our empathy decreased. This emboldened the state, which moved from late night violence in Tahrir to the Rabea dispersal in daylight within a busy residential area. By this point, the regime did not fear a backlash, and fully desired to use the spectacle of violence to deter people from further occupying public space.

This feeling of having blood on one’s hands perhaps stems from an illusion of too much agency, and is therefore problematic on many levels.

So, where does this leave us? — It is often a luxury to reflect, to feel, to empathize. In order to move on with life when one has limited agency, it is sometimes necessary to repress thoughts and emotions that might hinder this process. We like to believe we are the good guys, that we did the right thing.

The absence of any collective means of dealing with violence from the last few years isn’t helping. Only small groups of like-minded people are able to admit their limitations and mistakes to one another in a way that is at all reflective or empowering. It takes courage to own pain, guilt and disappointment, and to choose to engage in politics again instead of resignation, guilt and fear. This is also a luxury, and is not something that we can expect people to do easily.

I don’t claim to have any answers, but think we should start wider conversations about what happened in 2013.

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