CAIRO — Around 6:30 a.m., police armored vehicles rumbled up to the barricades at the edges of the anti-government sit-in where thousands of Islamists had camped out for weeks in a Cairo square.
First came tear gas. Then quickly, police started using machine guns. Every five minutes, student Mahmoud el-Iddrissi remembers, they swept the barricade with bullets. A friend next to him stood to throw a firecracker and immediately fell, shot in his neck and shoulder.
The scene on Aug. 14, 2013, was the start of the biggest massacre in modern Egyptian history, as security forces crushed the sit-in by Islamist supporters of Mohammed Morsi, the elected president who had been removed by the military a month earlier. At least 624 people were killed during 12 hours of mayhem in Cairo’s Rabaah el-Adawiyah Square, though rights groups have said the toll may be several hundred higher.
An Associated Press investigation shows that commanders gave security forces virtual carte blanche to use deadly force. Authorities contend police only responded with live ammunition on anyone who fired on them — and eight policemen were killed by gunmen during the assault.
But broad orders to the security forces, revealed to AP, emphasized crushing resistance. Police were told to expect to come under fire and to move strongly to eliminate any threat. They were also told no one would be prosecuted for any deaths, two generals in the Interior Ministry, which is in charge of police, told the AP. The generals spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the planning.
The investigation also showed both the military-backed government and Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, the main force behind the protest, staunchly resisted any concessions that international mediators hoped could have averted the disaster. The AP interviewed more than 20 surviving protesters, security officials and diplomats.
A year later, the division is even stronger, now drawn in blood, between Egypt’s traditional two strongest powers: A military aiming to restore its old order, and the Muslim Brotherhood trying to survive after being ousted from power. That rivalry likely locks Egypt into continued conflict, with fears democracy will be the loser.
After the 2011 uprising removed autocrat Hosni Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood rolled to victory in a series of Egypt’s first democratic elections, bringing Morsi to the presidency. But opposition quickly grew. A year after Morsi’s inauguration, millions joined protests against him, prompting then-army chief Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi to remove and detain Morsi on July 3, 2013.
The Brotherhood did not go quietly. Over the next month, its sit-in protest at Rabaah el-Adawiyah Mosque grew. Morsi supporters camped out in hundreds of tents. From a stage at the center, prominent clerics and other figures daily told crowds they would hold out until Morsi was restored, denouncing el-Sissi and the military leadership as traitors fighting a war against Islam. A second, smaller sit-in was located across the capital in Nahda Square.
Tensions swelled. Security officials called Rabaah a threat that must be dealt with, saying armed “terrorists” were among the protesters. Rights groups have since confirmed that there were a few with automatic weapons, but that it hardly constituted an “armed camp” as officials depicted. Twice, police fired on protesters who marched out of the camp, and more than 100 were killed.
The protesters, in turn, contended they were standing up for democracy and vowed never to recognize a government installed by what they called a coup. Their protest failed to garner wider public support, but the Brotherhood and its allies increasingly pinned their cause on an all-or-nothing stand in Rabaah.
Those entrenched stances doomed mediation attempts led by four envoys: U.S. State Department official Robert Burns, EU envoy Bernadino Leon, and diplomats from Qatar, an ally of the Brotherhood, and the United Arab Emirates, an ally of Egypt’s military.
On Aug. 4, the diplomats met in prison with the Brotherhood’s most powerful man, deputy leader Khairat el-Shater, arrested soon after Morsi’s ouster. As the group’s top decision-maker, el-Shater’s say was crucial.
El-Shater was willing to have a dialogue but only “between equals” — meaning prisoners must be released, Leon said. El-Shater suggested that Saad el-Katatni, a senior Brotherhood figure, should be the first freed. El-Shater recognized that he and Morsi would not be immediately released, according to Leon, giving the AP his first detailed account of the mediation.
It seemed a good sign. Diplomats had already proposed to the government that it release el-Katatni and Brotherhood-allied politician Aboul-Ela Madi to act as negotiators.
But in Rabaah, Brotherhood leaders and their allies adhered to their stance that Morsi must be freed.
“Any dialogue must be with the legitimately elected president,” Gamal Abd-ul-Sattar, a senior figure in the Brotherhood-led anti-coup alliance, told the AP in response to questions sent to the Brotherhood’s press office in London.
Leon said each side demanded the other act on reducing tensions, but neither did. Authorities wanted an end to rhetoric from Rabaah they saw as inciting violence. The protesters pointed to media portraying them as terrorists.
Protest leaders were convinced that concessions were useless and that the military was determined to crush the Islamist movement.
“I do not believe anything could have averted them as they were intent on stifling any dissent,” Abd-ul-Sattar said. And protesters themselves did not want to back down, he said, adding that with the assault imminent, sit-in organizers asked women to leave the protest but they refused.
At the same time, a prominent ultraconservative Salafi cleric, Sheik Mohammed Hassan, was secretly mediating with both sides. In an Aug. 3 sermon, Hassan announced that the military promised not to break up the sit-ins if protesters ease their rhetoric and not leave the square in marches.
Furious that talks were revealed, Rabaah leaders denounced him. One of them, Salah Sultan, vowed never to recognize the post-Morsi government, calling el-Sissi “the traitor, the murderer, the liar.”
The international envoys presented their proposal: The government would release some Brotherhood leaders, while the protesters would reduce numbers in the squares and tone down rhetoric. International experts would investigate claims of weapons among the protesters and of violence on both sides.
Each side replied, “It is the other side who should start first,” Leon said.
Things were falling apart. U.S. Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham arrived to meet with both sides. Their 45-minute sit-down with el-Sissi on Aug. 6 quickly soured. They pressed him to release detainees, while he insisted the jailed Brotherhood leaders had committed crimes.
El-Sissi grew “very agitated” and said “order must be restored,” McCain told the AP. “The meeting came to a rather abrupt end.”
After the meeting, McCain told a press conference that he considered Morsi’s ouster a coup, further angering the government.
The next day, the government announced that mediation had failed.
A few days before the assault, a top Interior Ministry official gave a fiery speech to Central Security troops vowing revenge for policemen killed by Islamic militants. “The blood of our sons in the police will not go in vain,” he told them, according to the two generals.
The basic dispersal plan was for forces at one end of the surrounded sit-in to drive protesters out through “safe passages” at the other end. The orders to police were to “act according to the situation by degrees of escalation,” the two generals said.
But also, police were told to expect protesters to have weapons and to swiftly move to eliminate them, they said.
“The orders were clear not to give any opportunity for the police to be targeted,” one general said. “We explained to them self-defense is legitimate and they will not be subjected to prosecution later on.”
Steps were taken to ensure that. One of the generals said ammunition was brought to the troops from multiple storehouses to obfuscate its origin. Release logs were also covered up, he said, so they could not be used as evidence if any policemen were prosecuted for deaths, as had happened after the protests against Mubarak.
Egyptian law allows police to use weapons to disperse assemblies that “present a danger to public security.” Rights groups, however, say the issue is proportionality. Courts tend to give wide leeway to police. “Everything today is up to who has the right and power to interpret (the law) and impose his interpretation,” said prominent Egyptian rights lawyer Bahy Eddin Hassan.
Notably, the interior minister announced after the dispersal that the weapons found in the square totaled nine automatic weapons, a pistol, five homemade guns and ammunition.
Within 15 minutes into the assault, casualties flooded into a clinic set up by protesters in the reception hall of Rabaah Mosque: guards from the barricades on the sit-in’s eastern edge with gaping wounds from heavy caliber guns, said Fatma Yahya Bayad, a surgeon in the clinic.
The clinic quickly filled with bodies and with tear gas, said Abdel-Rahman el-Bittar, a volunteer guard. “We had to run over the injured and the dead to get out.”
On the sit-in’s western side, police fired warning shots in the air for the first 20 minutes. Then they came under gunfire from nearby buildings, the two generals said. Lt. Mohammed Gouda, who was circulating with a loudspeaker to tell residents to stay indoors, was the first policeman shot and killed.
A key question about Rabaah is who shot first. A comparison of accounts does not definitively answer that because witnesses’ recollection of timing is likely not exact.
The generals said that when Gouda was killed, security forces panicked and let loose with heavy fire. Even worse, Gouda was shot in the planned safe passage.
However, accounts by Bayad, el-Bittar and el-Iddrissi suggest the first gunshot casualties among protesters had already happened — on the far side of the sit-in from Gouda’s shooting.
The following hours were mayhem, with police backed by armored vehicles and bulldozers advancing slowly down streets thick with obstacles — tents, cars, sandbags, brick barriers and the protesters themselves, throwing stones and Molotov cocktails. Bullets flew as men and women fled for cover. Tents caught on fire. At one point, a nearby gas station burst into flames.
The crisis quickly spread nationwide. Angered by the Rabaah assault, Islamists attacked police stations and churches in cities around the country, killing policemen.
In Rabaah’s reception hall clinic, bodies were lined up in rooms and volunteers frantically performed basic first aid. In the chaos, many died untreated. “I know I’m going to die, just give me something for the pain,” one patient told Bayad.
Tear gas barrages forced staff and wounded in the clinic to flee to a nearby hospital, a few dozen yards away behind the mosque. Bayad described a mad dash ducking wild gunfire until they reached the hospital.
Perhaps the day’s heaviest battle took place at an apartment tower still under construction behind the mosque. Youths inside rained down rocks and firebombs. Police say they came under fire by gunmen in the building.
In the afternoon, police opened an all-out assault on the building with a massive fusillade, including using snipers firing from helicopters, according to the two generals.
The hail of bullets pulverized the building’s brick facade, showering red dust on protesters lying flat in the street for cover, said Mohammed Gamal, a 21-year-old protester who was on the building’s fifth floor.
Down in the street, he saw a man throwing stones fall from a shot. “Another protester tried to crawl to him,” Gamal remembered. “The minute he touched the body, he too was shot.”
Finally, police special forces broke into the ground floor, sending protesters above fleeing from the building, some falling in the gunfire, Gamal said.
Masked security officers then stormed the hospital at around 5:30 p.m. “Everybody out,” they told staff. They fanned up the building to clear it, stopping doctors in mid-operation on the wounded, said one doctor, Abdel-Rahman el-Shareef. Exhausted doctors and nurses carried what patients they could but were forced to abandon many.
Bayad said she protested to an officer that she couldn’t leave the wounded.
“Simple,” he replied, “I can shoot you and you can lie next to him.”
Finally, the safe passages opened. As the call to evening prayers echoed around Cairo, the dispersal was over.
The final toll was 624 dead, according to the government’s human rights agency. Abd-ul-Sattar said the Brotherhood-led coalition has documented 2,500 dead, though that is far above tallies put together by independent rights groups reaching nearly 1,000. Nearly 100 more were killed in the dispersal of the Nahda sit-in. Nationwide, 42 policemen were killed, including eight in Rabaah.