On 24 January 2015, just hours before the anniversary of the 2011 Egyptian uprising, a woman was killed in broad daylight. Shaimaa al-Sabbagh, 31, a left-leaning activist and member of the Popular Socialist Alliance Party, had travelled from Alexandria to participate in a small demonstration with her colleagues.
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi had announced that the fourth anniversary of the revolution would be cancelled, as Egypt entered a week of mourning for Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah’s death. Tahrir Square was, as usual, sealed off with barbed wire and barriers, as has been the case since the military’s takeover, save for a couple of pro-Sisi and regime-endorsed demonstrations.
By mid-afternoon, around 30 activists had gathered in Talaat Harb square – just a couple of hundred metres from the epicentre of 2011’s protests. The group was protesting peacefully, with the eventual plan to move towards Tahrir Square to lay wreaths in memory of demonstrators who had been killed during protests four years before.
But within minutes – and according to bystanders, without warning – masked riot police began shooting teargas and bird-shot at the small procession. Al-Sabbagh was hit in her neck and back and fell to her knees in the middle of the crowded street as a friend tried to support her.
Shot at such a close range, the bird-shot proved fatal; according to a report from the Forensic Medicine Authority, the pellets ‘caused a laceration in the lungs and heart, with major hemorrhaging’. The images and videos of her death quickly went viral across Egypt, as well as abroad – a stark symbol of the unfettered brutality that has once again swept up the country.
The Ministry of Interior (MOI) quickly dismissed its culpability in the case, suggesting that it was someone from within the crowd who shot at Shaimaa, claiming that the type of ammunition used was not in police stocks.
During a press conference, Gamal el Moukhtar, a senior official in the ministry, said that the images of Shaimaa’s death were ‘inconsequential’.
‘There is a faction of the [Muslim] Brotherhood that is entirely dedicated to fabricating photos and videos that tell people the police assault protesters,’ he said.
While the MOI attempts to absolve itself from responsibility, both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have stated that photographic and video evidence and eye-witness accounts ‘strongly suggest’ that Sabbagh was killed by bird-shot fired by a member of the Egyptian security forces.
The anniversary of an uprising
25 January is internationally known as the starting point for the 18 days of massive demonstrations calling for Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s former dictator, to relinquish his power. Notably, the demonstrations were planned to coincide with National Police Day, in response to unabated police brutality and to end the impunity of Mubarak’s security forces, among the wider cry for ‘bread, freedom, and social justice’.
And yet, four years later, another 25 people have died, including two police conscripts and a 10-year-old boy, as clashes erupted between security forces and protesters.
Even now, the same grievances remain. The country faces stagnant unemployment rates, a renewed clampdown on freedoms of assembly and expression, and the continuing abuse of civilians by security forces.
Human rights groups state that space for opposition has plummeted to the lowest levels ever; human rights are the worst they have ever been in Egypt’s modern history
While terrorism remains a point of concern in Egypt, the current regime has used it as a justification for repressive measures against civil society. Following the military’s takeover in July 2013, the Muslim Brotherhood has become a scapegoat for terrorism, instability and violence, and for any general woes the country faces.
The group was outlawed in December 2013, and since then, the state has vowed to extinguish its existence, to crack down on terrorism and to establish ‘stability and security’. The price of attempting said ‘stability’, however, has so far meant a clampdown on any form of opposition, a tightening of the sphere of expression and assembly, and compromised human rights.
Human rights groups state that space for opposition has plummeted to the lowest levels ever; human rights are the worst they have ever been in Egypt’s modern history, and that Sisi’s tolerance for dissidence is below that of previous presidents Mohamed Morsi and Hosni Mubarak.
According to Wiki Thawra, a database which documents arrests, at least 41,000 people were arrested between August 2013 and May 2014. Prisons are bursting with activists and people allegedly associated with the Muslim Brotherhood.
The death of a revolutionary
While mass protests have indeed dwindled since the onset of the anti-protest law in November 2013, small protests do persist in pockets, mostly in popular districts, areas outside the heart of Cairo, and particularly in Islamist strongholds – and thus outside the realm of international news. Clashes between these protesters and the police have resulted in deaths that remain underreported.
What is specifically significant about Shaimaa’s death is the very fact that she was a leftist activist, unarmed and unaffiliated with the demonized Brotherhood. She was essentially the very embodiment of an activist of the revolution – the same revolution that the military regime has claimed they supported and brought to fruition.
While other demonstrators are shot, it is easy for the police to claim that they were either terrorists or that they were killed by Muslim Brotherhood affiliates. This was the case just one day before Shaimaa’s death, when Sondos Reda, a 17-year-old girl, was shot and killed near clashes between security forces and protesters at a pro-Muslim Brotherhood demonstration in Alexandria.
According to some reports, Sondos was not even participating in the demonstration, but got caught in the crossfire while walking by. The Egyptian government, however, has said that she was shot during clashes between protesters and residents of a neighbourhood – again exonerating itself from responsibility.
Four years later, no progress
Shaimaa’s dying is symbolic of the undeterred and excessive force the state is willing to use against its population, under the guise of quashing terrorism.
The reaction to her death across Egypt was mixed. On the one hand, there was widespread condemnation. People were shocked and activists were outraged. In a rare glimmer of press diversity, the editor of al-Ahram, a state-owned newspaper, which, along with the rest of the national press, usually upholds the government’s narrative and its justification for force, criticized the state’s actions.
‘The irrevocable facts conveyed by the eyewitness accounts from Shaimaa’s partners in the demonstration and by the footage of her killing clearly indicate the killer, the misuse of power and a failure to implement the law,’ Ahmed Sayed Naggar wrote.
On the other hand, the violence that has encompassed the nation has meant that many have been de-sensitized. In the videos that came out on 24 January, some bystanders and witnesses to Shaimaa’s death seem to pass as if nothing is happening – seemingly unsurprised, almost to the point of being unconcerned.
During a short vigil held on 26 January, a man passed between the wall of flowers laid out in memory of Shaimaa and the photographers capturing the event. When people asked him to move, the man, disgruntled, threw up his arms in annoyance – as if they were the ones obstructing his path.
While the country was shocked and outraged by her death, the police seem to remain immune from reform. Al-Sisi offered his condolences and said he viewed her as a ‘daughter’. However, he followed that by saying ‘an individual’s mistake should not be used to undermine an entire institution [the police force]’.
Last Wednesday, an Egyptian court sentenced 230 activists, including Ahmed Douma, one of the leading activists of the 2011 uprising, to life imprisonment for their involvement in clashes. On Monday, 183 Muslim Brotherhood supporters were handed death sentences on charges of killing 15 police officers in 2013.
By contrast, in November 2014, a court cleared Mubarak of the charge of killing protesters, while to date, almost all police officers have been acquitted of charges in relation to the death of protesters.
There seems very little possibility that the current regime will relent in its repression. Four years on from Tahrir Square there remains not only little space to protest, but also exhaustion and a sense of defeatism.
Activists who were once at the forefront of the uprising and all its oscillations now face the very real fact that many of their friends and colleagues have been muzzled, shot at, or imprisoned with harsh sentences.
The deep political polarization in the country runs in favour of the regime. The mistrust and suspicion between secular activists and Islamists has meant that the opposition has largely been splintered. The coalescence of 2011 has by and large been replaced with conflict and feuding amongst factions – further weakening the potential for a renewal of popular resistance in the country.