Egypt’s military-led regime stopped a press conference organized by the largest anti-government coalition on Tuesday, in the latest move by authorities to suppress all opposition voices.
“In shutting down this public event, Egyptian authorities demonstrated yet again their zero tolerance of any sort of peaceful dissent,” Joe Stork, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch (HRW), told VICE News.
After the state-run National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) issued its full report on last year’s Rabaa massacre on Monday, the Anti-Coup Alliance planned to hold its own press conference the following day to question the official findings under the title “Rabaa Massacre… A Homeland At Stake.”
Following the removal of Mohamed Morsi from the Egyptian presidency last summer, his supporters flooded Cairo’s Rabaa al Adawiya Square and Nahda Square in Giza for several weeks before being forcibly dispersed by the authorities on August 14.
Independent human rights groups say more than 900 people were killed in the violent operation, but the full details of the raid, the exact number of people killed, and even discussion of the findings remain highly contested in Egypt.
While the Muslim Brotherhood organization has been banned, the Anti-Coup Alliance has continued to organize weekly protests and mobilize factions of Islamists, Morsi supporters, and others opposed to the military government. The group uses the Rabaa four-fingered salute, a controversial symbol to commemorate the victims of the massacre, as a logo.
Ostracized from public life, the group now uses the former headquarters of the Islamist Labor Party, where Tuesday’s event was scheduled to take place.
“We were planning to hold a press conference to dispute the [official] Rabaa findings,” Hamza Sarawy, a spokesman for the Anti-Coup Alliance, told VICE News. “Lots of journalists were invited, delegations from the European Union, human rights groups.”
By the time the reporters showed up, it was clear the conference would not be taking place. “The security forces cordoned the place and organizers were arrested,” Sarawy said. He denied reports any journalists were arrested. Plainclothes policemen told reporters that the conference was cancelled.
One of the two detained organizers, Mohamed Mourad, was taken to a police station and released later, but his colleague remains held in an undisclosed location, according to Sarawy.
'The murderous military junta are afraid the truth will affect public opinion at home and abroad.'
Police accused Mourad of working for Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based broadcaster accused by the Egyptian government of siding with the Muslim Brotherhood and supporting terrorism. “They think Al Jazeera is behind every trouble,” Sarawy said.
Mourad was lucky to be released, as arbitrary arrests and indefinite detentions have become the norm in recent months. Three Al Jazeera reporters, including Canadian and Australian nationals, have been held at a high-security prison in Cairo for months. Australian ex-BBC journalist Peter Greste, Canadian-Egyptian former-CNN employee Mohamed Fahmy, and local producer Baher Mohamed have been held behind bars since they were detained at their hotel on December 29.
While Anti-Coup organizers plan to reschedule the press conference, it is unclear how and when they would be able to present their side of the story publicly in the current security environment.
“[It] is evident confirmation that the murderous military junta are afraid the truth will affect public opinion at home and abroad,” the group said in an emailed statement on Wednesday. “The Alliance further announces that it will keep conference material indefinitely, and will leave it up to the international legal team tasked with criminal prosecution of the coup commanders to reveal the right material at the right time.”
The government dismissed the press conference, equating the organizers with supporters of the banned Muslim Brotherhood.
“The Muslim Brotherhood is a terrorist organization that should be arrested, not hold pressers,” Ministry of Interior spokesman Hany Abdel Latif told local daily newspaper Daily News Egypt.
Seven months after the violent dispersal of the Rabaa sit-in, the government’s findings remain the only completed investigation. But even the official report concludes that security officers resorted to excessive use of force.
While the report accused “armed men” among the pro-Morsi protesters of inciting violence and opening fire on government forces, it said that security “didn’t give the peaceful protesters enough time to leave away [sic] from the events locations, as the alarm only lasted for 25 minutes.”
The report also acknowledged the disproportionate use of force against protesters at the sit-in, which lasted 47 days. According to the forensic findings disclosed at the press conference on Monday, almost a quarter of the protesters were shot from behind.
“It [security] has failed to maintain restraint in some cases and violated proportionality in terms of the intensity of fire toward the sources [protesters],” the report found. It also confirmed that safe passages were not secured for protesters who wanted to leave the square and that the 300 ambulances could not reach the injured until the crackdown was over.
"The sit-in was dispersed in response to popular pressure," said Nasser Amin, of NCHR, in the official press conference on Monday, dismissing the military’s role in the operation. "The camp was dispersed by police; army troops were only responsible for securing the premises.”
Photo via VOA