“Mum, it’s over. I will see you in heaven.”
Those were the last words Mohammad Hussan’s neighbour heard from her son on the morning of August 14, 2013. An hour later the boy was dead, his body lying somewhere in Cairo’s Rabaa al-Adawiya square.
It’s estimated up to 1000 people were killed that day by Egyptian security forces determined to destroy Muslim Brotherhood sit-ins in Rabaa and Nahda squares.
In the 12 months since those protests took place, Egypt’s track record on human rights, democratic freedoms and economic justice has been in free fall. This is despite early hopes President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi would fulfil 2011’s promise of “bread, freedom and social justice” and start Egypt on a path towards a true democracy.
Today, the Egyptian government stands accused of imprisoning over 41,000 people between July 3, 2013, and May 15, 2014, “disappearing” hundreds of Egyptians into extra-judicial prisons, and, last week, of crimes against humanity.
A 188-page investigation by Human Rights Watch said the “indiscriminate and deliberate use of lethal force” on August 14 resulted in the largest killings of demonstrators in recent memory — worse than the massacres in Tiananmen Square in 1989 and in Uzbekistan’s Andijan region in 2005, both with death tolls of up to 800 people.
Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth called the crackdown “one of the world’s largest killings of demonstrators in a single day in recent history” and “planned at the highest levels of the Egyptian government”. The government responded by barring Roth and Middle East and North Africa director Sarah Leah Whitson from entering the country on Monday and by calling the report a “flagrant violation” of Egypt’s state sovereignty.
The massacres were the start of Egypt’s worst year in decades in terms of human rights, social justice and democratic freedoms, according to Amnesty International Egypt observer Mohamed Lotfy. The violations were extreme even compared to those committed under previous strongman Hosni Mubarak, he said.
In March and April 683 Muslim Brotherhood supporters were sentenced to death. All opposition newspapers have been closed and 11 journalists killed doing their jobs. Others, including Australian Peter Greste, faced show trials or are still in prison. There are weekly reports of new prisoner deaths in police custody, and tens of thousands of dissidents have been jailed, effectively stamping out any moderate opposition groups, Lotfy says.
If human and political rights have deteriorated over the last year, so have hopes for economic justice — one of the key demands of the revolution. The founder of the Signet Institute think tank, Angus Blair, says Egyptian businesspeople were hopeful after Morsi was deposed they’d get a government focused on the economy.
A year on — and two months after Sisi was elected — Blair is surprised at the lack of an overarching plan to deal with the country’s myriad economic problems. Blair says businesspeople are “disillusioned and disappointed” by the lack of willingness in government to affect real change.
Last year in Rabaa, two nights before the sit-ins were destroyed, geologist Mohamad el-Zahed, 49, happily chatted about his hopes for the growing protest movement. He’d been “dragged to the hard line” by the military overthrow of his elected president, and it was Egypt’s chance to fight for its democracy.
Days later those hopes lay smouldering in the ruins of the burnt out Rabaa mosque. One year on, even that freedom to protest has been taken away, and the government has successfully snuffed out any real hope for a just, democratic future.