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Rabaa's new army-installed 'memorial': fresh paint, bitter reminder

14 November 2013 19:30 (Last updated 14 November 2013 19:33)
Hundreds of protesters were killed and thousands injured in what Human Rights Watch described as "the worst unlawful mass killing in Egypt's modern history".

CAIRO (AA) - The paint on the walls is fresh. The newly-planted trees are green. The burnt-out Rabaa Al-Adawiya Mosque has been whitewashed.

Strolling around Cairo's newly-renovated Rabaa al-Adawiya Square, partially opened to traffic after a three-month closure, it's difficult to believe that the area recently saw the worst mass killing in Egypt's modern history -- had the military not left a controversial reminder in the very heart of the square.

The mosque's freshly-painted minaret now overlooks a marble monument featuring two almost interlocking wood-colored arms enclosing a large pearl-like ball. The whole thing sits in a tub of black marble through which a fountain will eventually be operated.

"The very sight of it disgusts me," 69-year-old Sayyida, who lives near the square, told Anadolu Agency.

In a recent interview with state daily Al-Ahram, Hafez al-Said, a senior municipality authority official, explained the meaning of the abstract "memorial," which was erected by the Egyptian army's engineering corps.

The larger of the two arcs represents the army, he said, while the smaller arc represents the police. The large ball in the center, he said, was meant to symbolize the Egyptian people.

"Have they no shame?" Sayyida fumed. "Glorifying the murder of all those protesters?"

"My heart still sinks every time I pass through the square," she added.

Following the army's July 3 ouster of elected president Mohamed Morsi, hundreds of thousands of defiant Morsi supporters staged an almost 45-day sit-in in Rabaa Square.

In the early hours of Wednesday, 14 August, security forces moved in to break up the protest camp.

By the evening, security forces had seized and cordoned off the square, while Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim declared the operation a resounding success.

Hundreds of protesters were killed and thousands injured in what Human Rights Watch described as "the worst unlawful mass killing in Egypt's modern history".

In October, the Egyptian military funded a project -- to the tune of 90 million Egyptian pounds (roughly $13 million) -- to renovate the square, rebuild the Rabaa Mosque (which had been burnt down during the sit-in dispersal) and erect a new monument at the site.

"If this monument is meant to commemorate a triumph, it's the triumph of the army and police over the people -- not a triumph for the people," Sayyida said bitterly.

- Insult

Loai, another local resident, was no less disturbed by the appearance of the strange new cenotaph.

"It's very provocative," the 31-year-old told AA. "Every time I pass through the square, I pray with a heavy heart for those who fell here."

"Whenever I look at the monument, I can't help being filled with anger," he added.

"They're glorifying the same police apparatus that we revolted against on January 25, 2011! This memorial celebrates them," Loai lamented.

Prominent activist Khaled Mansour, an eyewitness to the bloody August 14 dispersal, is just as angry.

"The memory of Rabaa is a very emotional one on a humanitarian level," he told AA.

"This [the monument] is an affront to the families of those who died on the very same spot on which it now stands," Mansour said.

"It is a constant provocation to those who opposed the massacre and continue to oppose the military coup," he added, referring to Morsi's ouster.

According to Mansour, the army wants the Rabaa dispersal to be remembered as a triumph over "terrorism" -- a common refrain in Egypt's rabidly pro-army media.

"They want to change history," Mansour said. "They want to turn an atrocity into some kind of triumph."

He added: "The symbolism is, in itself, criminal."

- Polarized

But local supporters of the military feel differently.

"I'm happy with the memorial," 30-year-old Mohamed, who lives only a few buildings away from Sayyida and Loai, told AA.

"The military and police rid us of the rule of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, and for that we're grateful," he said.

Marwa, a 38-year-old schoolteacher, voiced similar sentiments.

"It was an important day," she told AA, referring to the day of the dispersal.

"The army helped us end the Brotherhood chapter from our lives."

The widely divergent reactions to the controversial monument illustrate the extent of the polarization now plaguing Egypt, according to Abdel-Aziz Ezz al-Arab, a political science professor at the American University in Cairo.

"This monument is the embodiment of Egypt's failure to find a political solution," he told AA.

"Political polarity had reached very high levels prior to the June 30 protests [which led to Morsi's ouster]," he said.

"And his ouster produced a zero-sum game in which each camp's political survival depended on the disenfranchisement of the other," Ezz al-Arab added.

Egypt's military has enjoyed overwhelming support among Morsi's opponents, thanks largely to the massively pro-army media -- both state-run and private.

Army chief Abdel-Fatah El-Sisi, who has rocketed to stardom since announcing Morsi's ouster, has also played on Egyptians' sense of patriotism in recent public statements and speeches.

Ezz al-Arab believes the decision to erect a memorial in the heart of Rabaa represents a continuation of the military-backed government's attempts to influence public discourse.

"But as time passes, people tend to absorb and reevaluate major events, like what happened at Rabaa," he contended.

According to the professor, the military-backed government should not take Egypt's current state of affairs for granted.

"Supporters of the army will not remain as indoctrinated as they are now," he said.

He went on to assert that the army's attempts to impose its own version of what happened at Rabaa would be futile.

"Rabaa is beyond politics," he said. "It was a humanitarian tragedy; a direct blow to the higher values that 25 January revolution stood for."

"And history only immortalizes higher values."

By Nada Rashwan

englishnews@aa.com.tr

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