By Brian Whitaker
"On August 14, hundreds of Egyptians died when security forces violently dispersed sit-in protests against the military takeover that ousted President Morsi. One week later, hundreds of Syrians died in the chemical attacks near Damascus. Both these massacres were on a similar scale, and yet only one of them – in Syria – has been met with a strong international response. Outside Egypt, the events of August 14 have caused only a minor stir.
There are several obvious reasons for this difference in treatment. The attacks in Syria involved banned chemical weapons and formed part of an extremely bloody but seemingly intractable conflict that has raged for more than two years. The Syrian regime also has many foes and regards itself as part of the "resistance" bloc. Egypt, on the other hand, is still regarded as friendly towards the west despite its current military rule.
Less obviously, though, the Egyptian military have also been quite smart in their efforts to blunt criticism, according to Heba Morayef, Egypt director of Human Rights Watch.
Speaking during a visit to London yesterday, Morayef saw little prospect of anyone being held accountable for the killings on August 14 – at least in the near future. The overall death toll in Raba'a has still not been made public, she said, and "there's just general denial that there was any wrongdoing on the part of the police".
Others have even sought to justify what happened, she continued:
"You'll hear people that you think are usually rational, vaguely liberal, saying things like 'It was worth it', 'They deserved it' or 'There was no other choice'."I think part of that is because there was so little seen on television of what happened that day. You didn't see footage of people being shot while carrying [the] injured out, you didn't see the families crying over bodies. I think that's one of the reasons why it has been so easy for the authorities to package this as having been a relatively successful operation."You've also had some of the quote/unquote 'liberals' fully cheering on the police and even some organisations in the human rights community issuing press releases saying the dispersal of the sit-in took place in line with international standards."
On the human rights front, the dividing line is between Nasserists and non-Nasserists, she added.
"Some of the 1970s generation of the human rights community are Nasserists and they are the ones at this point coming out in support of the state against Islamists and "terrorists" (which is how they are framing it)."
As far as the violent assault on the sit-ins was concerned, Morayef disputed that the authorities had no other choice.
"When the decision to go through with the forcible dispersal happened ... there were alternatives on the table and that's why [Mohamed] ElBaradei's resignation was also significant. Baradei had been in a meeting with Sisi [the military chief] until 1am the night before and was convinced that Sisi was on side, not for any humanitarian reasons but that Sisis recognised that this was not a good option security-wise and would take the country into a spiralling situation."The Americans were also convinced that Sisi understood the necessity to not disperse the sit-ins – so Sisi seems to be able to convince different people that he is with them."But Sisi gave the Interior Ministry a free hand. There were different plans on the table. One was the idea of a cordon around sit-ins to prevent people from going in. They decided not to to that. They decided to go in for maximum speed and that worked with Nahda because in the first hour the sit-in itself was cleared. That didn't work with Raba'a because basically the gunfights continued until about 6pm."
The aftermath of the August 14 massacre brought mass arrests.
"Instead of just going selectively after the top leadership [of the Muslim Brotherhood] they then shifted into arrests on the basis of membership, and so you see every day in the news some mid-level leader from the governorates being arrested ... we're looking at over 2,500 arrested so far, at least."The clever thing they have done this time, and this is why I think 'military 2013' is much suaver than 'military 2011' – they have learned a lot of lessons – is that they are not using the emergency law for detention. They are not using the main tool that Mubarak used to use."
They are also avoiding the use of military trials in Cairo – something that has previously been a controversial issue – though they are still using military trials in Suez, Ismailia and Sinai. Sinai is effectively a military zone, she said, which is why people in Sinai are being taken to military tribunals.
The packaging is much smarter this time, she explained. There is no emergency law, no military trials for the most part in Cairo, they take people before the prosecutors, the prosecutor issues detention orders, all the charges are related to using or inciting violence.
This is a change from the "classic Mubarak tactic" of rounding up Brotherhood members simply on the basis of their membership, she said. "This time around the charges are all related to violence."
That also makes it much more difficult for foreign embassies to complain.
"It makes it much more difficult to dismiss these cases out of hand because we know there has been some violence ... and that allows the authorities to justify that kind of round-up ..."What we have right now is not only security forces in full power but also the judiciary helping to rubber-stamp that kind of full-blown security response and helping to package it in a way that I think has allowed the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to neutralise a lot of the international criticism."It's not surprising. Egypt has been historically able to block action at the [UN] Human Rights Council but we hope that after the biggest massacre we've ever seen there will at least be some joint action."Having sent out over the last four weeks schmooze delegations to Brussels, to Geneva, to Washington, they have had all these independent civil society actors – the Nasserists in the human rights community, liberal political leaders – coming up to explain the 'truth' of what happened and I think that has been fairly successful.""