Two years ago today, Egyptian military dictator Abdel Fattah el-Sisi committed one of the deadliest atrocities of the 21st century, killing at least 817 civilians, a number of them women and children.
No one has been punished for the massacre, and in the 24 months since it happened, Sisi has been embraced as an American ally and a folk hero among segments of the Republican Party.
The Rabaa massacre: what happened
The story of the Rabaa massacre, as it quickly became known, begins about six weeks earlier, in July 2013. Mohammed Morsi, Egypt's first-ever democratically elected president and an Islamist affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, was under siege. His brief presidency had been a disaster, and much of the country was turning against him. On July 3, his own defense minister, a general named Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, arrested Morsi and suspended the constitution in a coup.
While many Egyptians celebrated the coup, others protested it. In Cairo, members of the Muslim Brotherhood gathered for peaceful sit-ins at al-Nahda Square and at Rabaa al-Adawiya Square, named for the adjacent Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque. Over several weeks, the camps, covered with posters of Morsi, sprawled to include thousands of people, including many families. Children played in carnival-like inflatable pools and bounce castles.
Egypt's new military government repeatedly warned that it would clear the protests, but promised it would be peaceful and orderly. Officials posted maps showing "safe exits" by which protesters could leave unharmed.
Early on the morning of August 14, 2013, security services surrounded the squares. As many protesters still slept, they demanded that the camps be cleared. But they blocked off the promised "safe exits" and almost immediately began firing tear gas, sending the crowded camps into chaos. Only 10 minutes after the announcement, they began firing live ammunition into the crowds. The men, women, and children inside were trapped.
Young men set up makeshift barricades and threw stones, but it quickly became clear they would be overwhelmed. This video, one of many to emerge from the day's violence, shows the moment when one such group of young men realizes, in terror, that the advancing security forces were using live ammunition:
The violence was terrible and quick. By evening, the squares had been cleared of most living people, but the dead seemed to be everywhere. Nearby morgues and makeshift field hospitals became so overloaded that blocks of ice were brought in to cool the bodies.
Investigators from Human Rights Watch were able to document 817 specific protesters who were killed in the violence, though they estimate the toll was much higher, likely more than 1,000, making it the deadliest day in modern Egyptian history and one of the deadliest single-day mass killings in modern history.
Though the killing had been at both the Rabaa and al-Nahda squares, it was shorthanded to the Rabaa massacre. For a time, outraged Egyptians — which was far from all of them, as state media and pro-Sisi protesters cheered in support of the killings — commemorated the dead by raising four fingers. (Rabaa sounds like the Arabic word for "four" or "fourth.") But Sisi's military government only continued to crush the Muslim Brotherhood, and then later turned on many of the "liberal" groups who had supported his coup, as well as journalists, human rights groups, and any other whisper of civil society.
Nine months later, in May 2014, el-Sisi replaced the sham of his "interim" and "emergency" rule with a different sham, standing for president in a cartoonish election in which he awarded himself 97 percent of the vote. He took off his military uniform (he had given himself the rank of field marshal by then, in recognition of his valor in combat against unarmed women and children), put on a suit, and became the president of Egypt, which he remains today.
America's embrace of the mass murderer Abdel Fattah el-Sisi
The history of American foreign policy is punctuated with shameful moments of hypocrisy, moments in which the US abandons or actively subverts the values it has pledged to safeguard, and the Obama administration's embrace of el-Sisi will forever stand as one of the starkest such moments since the end of the Cold War.
The Obama administration had opposed Sisi's coup that July, and indeed, in the days leading up to the coup, tried to prevent it. Chuck Hagel, then the defense secretary, repeatedly called Sisi — the American and Egyptian militaries are close, bonded by decades of cooperation and US arms sales — to plead with him not to go through with it.
But once Sisi took power, the US suddenly had less to say. It refused to label his takeover a coup. This would have required the US to cut aid to Egypt — the country is the second-highest recipient of US aid, after Israel — and would have endangered what that aid helps to buy: cooperation against terrorism, cooperation with Israel and with Gaza, and something of an alliance with the Middle East's most populous country.
On August 1, 2013, a few weeks after Sisi took power and only days before the Rabaa massacre, US Secretary of State John Kerry, at an event in Pakistan, defended Sisi's coup, saying, "In effect, they were restoring democracy."
When Rabaa happened, even the White House couldn't ignore the global revulsion over the mass killing there, and about a week later — a span that seems brief now, but at the time felt like a deafening, damning silence — Obama announced, in a speech, that the US would temporarily suspend some military aid to Egypt.
Since then, Sisi's Egypt has only tightened control, cracking down on elements across society, imprisoning journalists and aid workers, including Westerners, and attempting to grind the Muslim Brotherhood into the ground. Morsi, the former president, was sentenced to death (he has not been executed). And then, of course, came the sham 2014 election when Sisi anointed himself president.
You would like to expect that, as Sisi's authoritarianism worsened over the past two years, the US would have responded in-kind, punishing his abuses and distancing American foreign policy from this volatile dictator. Instead, the opposite has happened, and the US has warmed considerably to Sisi. In March, the Obama administration quietly released the military aid it had frozen in punishment for Rabaa, though Sisi's government had done nothing to address its crimes. Kerry has not only met with Sisi, but has publicly voiced support for him, apparently seeing the Egyptian dictator as an avenue of expediency for pursuing Israel-Palestine peace talks.
As if the United States had learned no lessons at all from its decades of supporting Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted in the 2011 revolution, it has once again made an ally out of a monster. Sisi, like Mubarak, is a partner in American efforts against violent extremists, on Gaza and Israel-Palestine, and in the regional political issues on which Egypt tends to have significant influence.
Republicans and the mass murderer el-Sisi
It's difficult to know which is more shameful: the Obama administration's decision to hold its nose and cynically partner with Sisi, thus actively aiding in his rule, or a growing trend among elements of the Republican party to not just support Sisi but to lionize him as a folk hero.
To be clear, the Republican embrace of el-Sisi is not universal. True neoconservatives in the party, including Sen. John McCain and presidential candidate Marco Rubio, have taken authentically principled positions against Sisi. In late 2013, for example, Rubio sponsored legislation to further suspend aid to Egypt. Earlier this year, a bipartisan group of seven senators, including Rubio and McCain, signed a letter to Kerry urging him to pressure Sisi on human and political rights abuses.
Yet they are the outliers in a GOP that has otherwise come to embrace Sisi. For many Republicans, their thinking appears to be in line with the Obama administration's apparent belief that Sisi is useful enough to merit working with. (That this is a bipartisan position does not make it forgivable.)
But others see Sisi as someone to celebrate and emulate, describing him as a hero. What is most disturbing is that this praise often specifically cites Sisi's treatment of Islamists, which, recall, most famously included his decision to murder hundreds of unarmed Islamist civilians in the streets of Cairo.
This movement within the further-right, often evangelical wings of the Republican Party goes back to the Rabaa massacre itself. In early September, only about three weeks after the massacre, three Republican members of Congress appeared in Cairo to pledge their support for the Sisi government. Reps. Michele Bachmann, Louie Gohmert, and Steve King issued a bizarre and disturbing video during their trip, praising the Egyptian security forces' conduct "on the front lines" and urging further action against the Muslim Brotherhood, which Bachmann called a "great evil."
At the time, this looked like the embarrassing actions of a fringe, and indeed they were, but the view of Sisi as an important American ally against the Muslim threat has trickled up. Sisi has since been granted glowing coverage and softball interviews by Fox News and other conservative outlets. In March 2015, Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens lauded him as "Islam's improbable reformer" in a flattering profile.
"Thank God for President al-Sisi in Egypt," Mike Huckabee said in a TV appearance this February.
During the recent Republican presidential debate, Sen. Ted Cruz declared, "We need a president that shows the courage that Egypt's President el-Sisi, a Muslim, [did] when he called out the radical Islamic terrorists who are threatening the world."
Their apparent surprise that a secular MidEast dictator would oppose Islamists is baffling, given that such dictators have been in the region, often committing atrocities, for decades. They include American allies, such as Egypt's Mubarak or former Tunisian dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali or Algeria's military government. They also include American enemies, such as Syria's Bashar al-Assad, or his tyrannical father Hafez al-Assad, or for a time Libya's Muammar Qaddafi. One of the most ruthless anti-Islamists was Iraq's Saddam Hussein. Sisi is just carrying on the tradition; for Republicans to treat him as revolutionary is puzzling.
Even Jeb Bush, though otherwise careful to frame Sisi as a strategic ally rather than a paragon of American values, said in February, "He gave this incredible speech about Muslim extremism, and saying it's the responsibility of the Arab world to step up to fight this; that the first risks are for countries like Egypt." Bush has criticized Obama for insufficiently embracing Sisi.
This adulation of Sisi as the Middle East's savior reflects a barely masked belief that not just violent extremism but Islam itself is America's enemy. In this view, Sisi's massacre of unarmed Islamists is not something to be cynically overlooked, as the Obama administration and more centrist Republicans have, but rather is precisely part of his charm.
Fortunately, it seems unlikely that any of Sisi's fans on the American far right will be headed for the presidency. But it is a disturbing indication of America's comfort with this mass murderer that, other than a few outliers in both parties who do oppose him, our political debate largely turns on whether we are providing sufficient political and financial support to the man who killed perhaps 1,000 unarmed men, women, and children on a single day in August 2013.