Ryerson journalism student Amal Ahmed Albaz flew home to Egypt this summer expecting a quiet vacation with her family. What she got was anything but
When his pockets were emptied, a white paper stained with red blood was found. It was a note from his 10-year-old daughter: “Dad, please come back home safely. I’m waiting for you.” But her wait will be fruitless because her father is never coming back. Khaled Nassar was dead.
Mohammed Morsi, the first democratically elected president in Egypt’s history, following the dramatic rallies of the 2011 Arab Spring, had been in office just over five months when opposition rallies sprung up in November 2012. On the anniversary of Morsi’s election, June 30, larger-scale demonstrations broke out in Tahrir Square, in Cairo.
By July 3, Commander of Egypt’s Armed Forces, Abdul Fatah Al-Sisi removed Morsi from office after a 48-hour warning of intervention.
The army also suspended the constitution that had been drafted under Morsi’s rule, appointed Supreme Court Justice Adly Mansour as acting president and promised prompt elections.
And I was there bright and early.
I arrived in Egypt at 6 a.m. on that same day. I thought I was going on vacation – not to war.
I was hoping to have the summer of my life. And I did. Just not the one I had imagined. Instead of tanning at the beach, I was protesting in Rab’a Square. Yes, the square that’s been notably recognized by Egyptian media as the “terrorist hub.” I’m an 18-year-old who cuddles in bed with a tissue box watching romantic chick flicks. I like hot chocolate and I like the smell of grass after a rainy day. I am not a terrorist.
Rab’a Square was your home away from home if you were anticoup.
It’s where thousands, and on some days millions, would protest.
You would see couples backpacking through the square as if it were some honeymoon destination.
You would see the richest of the rich, and the poorest of the poor.
You would see Christians and you would see Muslims. You would see a street that was once filled with cars now covered in tents. Each city, group, or organization had its recognized area, but you were more than welcome to stay wherever you wished.
I remember the latest invention being a two-storey-high tent made of wood. You would see black plastic bags hung inside the tents as shoe shelves. You would see people sweeping the streets of Rab’a – which in Egypt is a miracle. You were in a Utopia.
I wish I could’ve captured the spirit of Rab’a in a bubble and sprinkled it all over the world.
Imagine children spraying you with water so you could survive the day under the blazing Egyptian sun.
Women handed out sandwiches because they saw the look of hunger in your eyes.Thousands, and on some days millions, clapped their hands in unison, chanting against oppression. Proud flags danced to songs in the breeze. Imagine the peace. Imagine the unity.
But as soon as you stepped out of the boundaries of Rab’a, you were in a whole new world.
Imagine airplanes deafening your ears, flying over your head day and night. Armed, Hulk-like bulldozers blocked roads. In a taxi, you were unable to utter a word about your political views, because if you did, you might never be seen again.
Your own army turned against you, with checkpoints every couple of kilometres. Imagine a nation divided.
After the Rab’a Square massacre on Aug. 14, Khaled was one of more than 2,000 dead and 10,000 wounded in the span of 10 hours.
He was shot in the heart with a 7.2 cm bullet- a bullet the size of a human finger. Bullets of this size are intended for war zones.
It was the first time in Egyptian history that its army and police force attacked its own people on this scale in such a short period of time. Since the coup, Egypt has devolved into a state of war. Had Nassar not been eager to lend a hand, his heart would’ve still been beating, and I would have still had a family member. Khaled was my mother’s cousin. “We had just finished praying when Khaled insisted on heading to the 6th of October Bridge to help carry dead bodies,” said his brother, Ahmad Nassar.
“He wanted to see what was going on. All we could hear was shooting.” This was the first time Ahmad attended the protests with Khaled.
“I was here for a reason,” he said. “It’s like God sent me with him today to make sure someone’s with my brother after he dies. Otherwise, his body would’ve been lost and maybe even burned by the forces. They burn the bodies. I’ve seen it with my own eyes.”
On the day of the Rab’a massacre, Egyptian military forces burned down the hospital with injured, dead and live people inside.
Rab’a mosque, which was also burned, contained the rest of the bodies and their mourning families.
Before knowing that his brother met his fate, Nassar received a phone call from his sister, Hanaa, asking if they were okay.
She had received a phone call from a person who had called the last dialed number from Khaled’s phone. The caller told her Khaled was dead.
After searching the bridge piece by piece without any luck, Ahmad headed to the field hospital where he found Khaled’s body. The hospital was overpopulated and they had run out of medical supplies.
Thinking his brother was alive, he hopped on his motorcycle carrying his brother’s blood-soaked corpse on his shoulder and headed to the nearest hospital. “I’ve never seen so many dead bodies,” he said.
“There was no room for anyone to stand. Blood was everywhere and sorrow filled the air.”
“I waited there for hours and hours,” said Ahmad. The following day, the coroner didn’t show up. To get things “finished quickly,” they had two options: just take the body and leave, with no record of him being dead, or sign off on a waiver that said he committed suicide.
Both options would help the forces to decrease the death count.
“We ended up going to the coroner ourselves with a lawyer to try to get things done legally,” said Ahmad. They were finally able to bring Khaled’s body back home for a proper funeral. Many of the victims were not as fortunate.
Khaled was 39 years old. “My brother didn’t just die; he was murdered,” said Ahmad. “Khaled was killed because he expressed his mind, because he wanted a safe haven for his children and because he wouldn’t allow the Jan. 25 revolution to be stolen.” Khaled’s wife is pregnant with their second child.
Although millions of Egyptians are against the coup, there are also millions who are in its favour. Tamarod (which translates to “rebel yourself” in Arabic) was part of the movement that encouraged the coup and all its supporting demonstrations.
They were in part responsible for the opposition rallies on June 30.
Since the coup, President Morsi has been held at an unknown location, alongside his staff and assistants.
“He deserves to be captured,” said Mohammed El-Helal, a member of Tamarod. “Morsi didn’t do anything for the country. His people are ruining Egypt.”
“What did the coup do?” asked Khaled Hanafy, federal secretary of the capital sector of the Freedom and Justice Party (the political party affiliated with Morsi’s political group – the Muslim Brotherhood).
“It’s been a month, and everything we have experienced is nothing but unlawful detainment, jails, media censorship, rumors, curfews and total control over the nation.” After the coup, pensions decreased from 15 per cent to 10 per cent, along with the constitution’s cancellation.
“As soon a Sisi seized control, the Suez Canal Project [a project to open immense doors to employment and trade], was terminated,” said Rab’a protester, Manal Khedr.
“Everything that Morsi’s government was doing to better Egypt has ended.” The law, passed by Morsi, which would aid and give salaries to widows and unemployed women, was also cancelled.
“And that’s why we’re here in Rab’a. We are here for the return of our freedom. We feel humiliated,” said Khedr.
I remember the crowd shouting, “Death is more bearable than a life without dignity. We want to live! We’re not here to die. We want to live.”
The persistence of anti-coup protestors was a question to many.
“We can’t go home knowing that our votes were literally thrown in the garbage,” said Al-Azhar University student Yasmin Fahmy, another Rab’a enthusiast.
During the first Egyptian election in 2012, people would stand in lines several kilometres long, under the hot Egyptian sun, just to place their voice in that little voting box for the first time in history. The votes for the constitutional poll reached 64 per cent in approval, though the opposition alleges this number is fabricated.
Sixty-four per cent is larger than the renowned French constitution, which reached 63 per cent, and is one of the highest in the world. I remember on July 19, my mom and I were on a march with thousands of people from Rab’a to Salah Salem Street.
During our peaceful march, I saw three cars, with my own eyes, speeding through the crowd, waving knives from the window, hitting and smacking whoever was in the way. Some died and some were injured. Were they paid thugs? Opposing citizens? I don’t know. But one thing is for sure, they weren’t the so-called “terrorists” in Rab’a.
The following week, I performed a spoken word piece in front of the millions in Rab’a Square, which was broadcast live on several stations.
As you stand on that stage, you can feel the beams of empowerment heading your way. While one person would send you love, the other would send you courage.
About a month later, the army cleared Rab’a and other sit-ins (like Nahda Square, also in Cairo), by burning down tents and randomly shooting automatic live ammunition on peaceful protestors, which included children, women and elderly citizens.
Children who were literally born in Rab’a died in Rab’a.
After nine consecutive hours of constant smoke, gas, bulldozers, snipers, blood and cries, the army cleared Rab’a and gave a fiveminute warning. Anyone left in the square would be killed on the spot. Everyone came out with their hands up. The army declared a lock down. There was a 7 p.m. curfew, and anyone seen on the streets of Egypt would be either killed or detained.
Security forces even went as far as to enter houses, and even bedrooms, to arrest political opponents.
Not only were influential leaders detained, but also average citizens that were against the regime. I have three friends from Ireland (all sisters), who came to Egypt for vacation like I did, who are still illegally detained.
Though the interim, militarybacked government is moving forward, for many Egyptians the fight is far from over.
“We must be patient,” Khedr said. “Freedom isn’t cheap and we shall do everything we can to restore our rights. Long live Egypt. Long live justice.”