Three years after the deadly dispersal of the Rabaa Al-Adaweya sit-in, calls for investigations into the violence between Islamist protesters and riot police along with the armed forces, remain a subject of discussion for international institutions. On Saturday, spokesperson for UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon called on Egyptian authorities to hold an investigation into the killing of hundreds on 14 August 2013.
As the UN official formally showed his concern, condemned the violence, and called for investigations, Ban’s calls are nothing new in echoing the same reaction of the international community to the deadly dispersal.
Similarly, the media’s reaction to the dispersal remains the same three years on: one faction continues to commemorate the violence, Karbala-style, while another hardcore nationalist faction is still justifying the overly violent actions of the security forces.
Next to the presidential guard and Special Forces that secured former Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, there was the state-owned and private media which supported the so-called democratic stairway and new president in 2012.
A year later the very same security apparatuses that were loyal to Morsi and his political regime turned against him, physically killing and arresting thousands of his supporters, and personally detaining him and his presidential team. The media was also there in this radical shift, and turned against the “first democratically elected president”, transforming him into “leader of the terrorist group and agent of the west”.
Following the ouster of Morsi in July 2013 and the rise of pro-army nationalist rhetoric, thousands of pro-Brotherhood supporters had dug in their heels and put down roots in the Rabaa Al-Adaweya square in Cairo, creating a small city that collectively called for the return of Morsi while also producing sectarian rhetoric and acting violently against opposition.
Weeks later, the sit-in was violently dispersed, leaving hundreds dead, in what Human Rights Watch called a “crime against humanity” and described by critics of the regime as a “massacre”.
The media is owned by businessmen and administered by state officials, hence it falls under the same category of the military organisation that helped the Islamists to power but turned against them when the formerly underground group became hungry for more power. These outlets, TV and print, stood as a vanguard distorting the sit-in and the participants, justifying a more brutal action against the protesters and defending the actions of the much criticised police apparatus.
Whereas, in Rabaa, a refugee camp for the Islamist opposition, thousands looked to media outlets reporting the humane side of the protesters and the harassment they were subjected to by security personnel. This side over dramatised the dispersal and broadcast the post-dispersal violence as “peaceful protests”.
The sit-in, its dispersal, and how we remember this part of Egypt’s history, has been and continues to be framed by the narrative of the media. Three years on, the fight over the narrative continues.
On the one hand stood Al-Jazeera, who did not shy away from publically opposing the ouster of Morsi and supporting the sit-in. This channel acted as the main broadcaster of the sit-in with all its activities, speeches, and humane sides. Despite the Egyptian state’s attempt to disrupt the broadcast, the channel, along with other Islamist-affiliated channels reported the dispersal and the angry reactions from the rest of the world. Following this, other channels were created serving the same purpose, like Mekamlen, Al-Sharq, and Al-Watan.
As of the third anniversary, these channels still push the agenda of martyrdom, and provide a platform for opposition figures who fled the country to Qatar or Turkey. From documentaries, news reports, and testimonies, these channels politicised many of the country’s problems for the benefit of the now banned Muslim Brotherhood.
This was also strengthened by TV talk show hosts who publically denounced the regime and called for retribution and physical resistance.
On the other hand were the pro-military channels who continued to distort and demonise the Brotherhood and their supporters even after the violence had ended. The channels, by default, adopted the narrative of the Ministry of Interior and the Armed Forces word-for-word. These entities argued that the protestors at the sit-in were armed with machine guns and shotguns. In many cases, they ignored footage showing protesters taking fire, and only focused on footage of police personnel being shot at. The channels also deeply propagated the angle of the violence inside the encampment which was directed at anti-Brotherhood protesters.
Plus, the channels and newspapers accepted the narrative that the Brotherhood hid bodies of dead protesters under the main stage in the square, a claim heavily refuted by the Islamists who insist these were bodies of fallen protesters from the same day.
Widening the scope, pro-military media outlets have heavily connected violence in the volatile Sinai Peninsula with the sit-in. Newsreels showing bearded men in Cairo’s Rabaa Al-Adaweya square are followed by footage of explosions and assassinations in Rafah and Sheikh Zuweid.