Radwa Magdy, 35, holds up a picture of her husband on her phonewho disappeared during the dispersal of Rabaa massacre egypCairo: Four years on from Egypt’s bloodiest day, Egyptians are still looking for their loved ones.
“When I pass by [Rabaa Square] I feel hurt in my heart like this is where someone’s spirit left their body, or someone saved their friend, or a mother lost her son,” Sara Ali, now 26, tells Fairfax Media.
“??? and now cars just pass by casually. Even though it has changed physically, history will always bear witness that Rabaa was a massacre.”
Rabaa Square is where thousands of people, mostly Muslim Brotherhood supporters, protested against now Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s overthrow of Mohamed Morsi in a month-long sit-in in 2013.
It turned into a battle zone of tear gas, stray bullets and blood spilling from clashes between citizens and a militarised state in the urbanity of Cairo.
Ali, a diminutive postgraduate student, sat in the square in the searing heat for days and laments how authorities have elided the atrocities committed since then.
More than 800 people were killed as the government cleared the crowds on August 14, 2013, the largest mass killing in modern Egyptian history.
For Ali, Rabaa is especially painful because days later her father disappeared. She remembers him being grabbed by state security personnel.
“It was a Saturday when they took him and it was the hardest day of my life,” she says. “I couldn’t process what was happening and since then I haven’t seen him.”
He had been to Rabaa and survived the violence, but a few days later he was captured for his supposed links to the Brotherhood in Zagazig, Morsi’s hometown where there is a large Islamist constituency. She remembers the day well.
“I could hear my sisters’ screams coming from downstairs while I was running down dragging my mum. I saw elite forces lined up outside our house just like what you see on TV. It felt surreal, like an action film,” she said. “What was weird is that the soldier gripped my father’s arm while firing his AK-47 up in the air several times, like he was parading him in front of us to scare us.”
She has been leading the search for him, along with her five sisters and brother, ever since. She has even sued the state to find out where her father is but the final hearing was delayed last week yet again.
“For the past four years, my life has been on hold. I can’t even remember my life before they snatched him.”
Ali diligently travels every week to Cairo to connect with other families of the disappeared, as well as to approach official bodies in search of her father, a surgeon.
“Now I’ve become a man. I have taken on duties like a man, going from one institution to the next all in the hope of finding my dad,” she says referring to strict gender roles still prevalent in Egypt.
She is incensed that authorities have not responded to her requests and is adamant she will find him.
Egypt has used enforced disappearances to stifle dissent since the overthrow of the Brotherhood. Amnesty International estimates that at least 1700 people have disappeared, with hundreds ending up in secret detention facilities or executed without their kin knowing.
Sisi’s crackdown is even more repressive than those under Morsi’s predecessor, deposed president Hosni Mubarak, with more than 40,000 political prisoners and hundreds of critical websites shut down in recent months.
Fairfax Media contacted the Egyptian Ministry of Justice and the Attorney-General’s Office repeatedly for a comment on enforced disappearances to no avail.
No security official or political figure has been held accountable for the atrocities at Rabaa.
The Muslim Brotherhood – an Islamist group founded in Egypt in 1928 – has always had a Faustian pact with the rulers of Egypt, striking a balance between growing political influence and their grassroots social programs.
Yet, since Rabaa, the group has been decimated, forcing many to go underground or flee overseas, mostly to Turkey or Qatar.
“We are talking about the largest state massacre in modern Egyptian history that happened all in one day,” says Abdullah al-Arian, a history professor at Georgetown University in Qatar who has researched the Muslim Brotherhood extensively.
The Brotherhood was declared a terrorist group in November 2013 by Egyptian authorities and Sisi’s administration has lobbied Britain and the United States to follow suit.
After the overthrow of Morsi and the Rabaa massacre, many Brotherhood youths ended up in Syria fighting alongside jihadists or planting bombs, and even burning churches as a form of retribution .
“You have to go back to 1954 under Nasser’s rule to find the closest moment where something like this has happened. You’re not only just being outlawed but being actively pursued and hunted down by state security services,” Arian added.
Radwa Magdy, who speaks quickly, feels constantly under siege. She runs a support group for the families of the disappeared, helping them with the legal process of tracking down their relatives. In recent weeks, Magdy has become more attuned to the draconian measures of the authorities because her co-founder and friend was arrested in May as she searched for her own husband in a prison.
It is an all too familiar scenario for Magdy.
Minutes before security forces snatched her husband as the sun was setting over billowing smoke, corpses and panic in Rabaa Square, Magdy spoke to him on a borrowed mobile phone.
“He survived the whole day of the clearing of the square when the mosque was burnt and the stage demolished. He was there updating me all the time ringing from people’s mobiles and since that fateful day I haven’t heard from him,” she tells Fairfax Media.
Her husband Abdelaziz, an Arabic teacher with al-Azhar University was caught up in the violent melee.
Hailing from a small town in the Nile Delta, around 100 kilometres north of Cairo, Magdy, 35, has turned into an amateur archivist of legal documents and has become well-versed in Egyptian laws in order to find her husband.
Every couple of weeks, she takes a few days off her job as a civil servant to shuttle between the Attorney-General’s Office, the state-backed Human Rights Council and lower courts to lodge paperwork that would allow her to know where her husband is.
“I just want to get to the truth.
“We are talking about the soul of a human being. If he was killed then where is his corpse? I have been looking for four years straight, leaving no stone unturned, so where is he? He is absent.”