My brother was killed at Rabaa

Ahmed Bedier’s brother, Amir, lost his life protesting the military coup at Rabaa Square one year ag

Amir's mother identifies her son among the bodies at a makeshift morgue [Ahmed Bedier/Al Jazeera]

One year ago today, on August 14, 2013, my younger brother Amir Bedier was murdered on the streets of Cairo in one of the largest single-day killings of demonstrators in modern history, the Rabaa massacre. I was in Egypt at the time and the aftermath I witnessed has forever changed me.

My family and I travelled to Egypt last August to celebrate the Eid holiday marking the end of Ramadan and to attend my other brother’s wedding. What started out as a great family vacation and reunion ended as a nightmare of death and mourning.  

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A revolution betrayed

My brother joined the call to protest police brutality in Tahrir Square on January 25, 2011, which coincided with National Police Day – a national holiday instituted by Hosni Mubarak to commemorate Egypt’s security forces. Like the millions who descended onto the streets, Amir was determined to make history and remained steadfast in Tahrir during the January 25 Revolution until Mubarak stepped down on February 11. He was one of the unsung heroes who peacefully protested and protected the revolution. He was there during the Battle of the Camel where he was beaten, but did not give up.

Amir did not view Mubarak’s resignation as the culmination of the revolution, but merely an agreement to preserve military rule. Amir loved the united spirit of Tahrir. But that spirit was quickly vanishing, replaced by political divisions and chaos, brought on by the security forces and remnants of the former regime.

Like many Egyptians who protested the military coup and set up camp at Rabaa Square, Amir was never a member of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), and was highly critical of them. He felt they betrayed the revolutionaries by abandoning them for elections. In a way he blamed them for killing the revolution because of their naivete and political ambitions.

Equally, President Morsi was not Amir’s first choice for president in the first round of elections but he voted for him in the second round against Ahmed Shafiq, who symbolised the remnants of the old regime.

Protesting the military coup

On July 3, my brother called me very distraught, when President Morsi was overthrown in a military coup by General el-Sisi. Amir called me from Mecca, where he was performing umrah, and was very upset that the US government was supporting the coup and refusing to acknowledge it as such. After voting democratically in five different elections and referendums, everything was now overturned. He ended the phone call by vowing to join the encampment at Rabaa Square to protest the ouster of President Morsi. 

Amir returned to Cairo in mid-July, keeping his word to join the sit-in each day – until his very last.  He never spoke on stage or took an official role. He was simply there with thousands of other Egyptians calling for the return of President Morsi because they supported democracy . 

Massacre at Rabaa Square

I arrived in Cario shortly before the massacre. The city seemed empty, almost like the quiet before the storm. Amir insisted on inviting us over for dinner to his mother-in-law’s apartment close to Rabaa. When we arrived, it felt like the entire country was there; like a river, hundreds of thousands of people were flowing towards the square from every street. It was the first time Amir had seen my youngest son, and I felt my brother had a calm and peaceful presence about him.

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After dinner, Amir gave us a tour of what looked like a makeshift tent city in Rabaa Square. There were barber shops, restaurants, cafes and various kiosks located within the tents. There was a vibrant atmosphere throughout the encampment. On stage, there were speeches, couples getting married, and announcements being made. I never saw any weapons or heard any incitement to violence. It felt safe.

The next day was my brother Abdelatif’s wedding. Despite political differences within my own extended family, we were all united that evening in dance and celebration. Amir and his wife showed up briefly; he had a radiant aura about him and glided from table to table greeting family members. We did not know it would be the last time we would see him alive.  Hours later Amir would be killed in Rabaa.

On August 14, I woke up early in the morning and saw images on the news of military and police forces beginning the dispersal of Rabaa. Amir had been there since 5am and returned home at noon for just a few minutes to upload photos he had taken to Facebook. His wife noticed he was injured in his leg and begged him to stay, but Amir told her he felt obligated to help the others. By then, he reported, hundreds were already killed with thousands more injured. He felt it would be wrong for him to abandon them with no help, particularly the women and children.

My mother repeatedly called Amir’s phone to try to convince him to return home, until someone else finally answered at 2:30pm. She immediately sensed something was wrong, but there was no word for the next 12 hours. Amir’s wife eventually found his dead body on the street in Rabaa, but because the country was under curfew, my family and I were prevented from retrieving him.

A makeshift morgue at Masjid al-Iman

With the help of a neighbour, my sister-in-law carried her husband’s body to a makeshift morgue set up at the al-Iman Mosque. That’s where I found Amir’s body on August 15, among 350 bodies I personally counted of murdered protesters.

I drove my parents to the mosque and as we pulled near Rabaa, it looked like a war zone. We were in disbelief. The mosque was wall to wall with dead bodies. It was a hot day and, with no refrigeration, all anyone could smell was death. Rows and rows of bodies were covered in white sheets. To find Amir’s body, we had to uncover the faces of some 50 corpses. I had never seen that many dead people in my life.

My heart sank when we identified Amir’s body. He had a gaping hole in his neck, which appeared to be the result of a high-caliber single bullet. The carpet of the mosque was soaked in blood, and there were mothers, friends, and mourners sitting by the bodies of their loved ones in various states of shock.

Death by ‘natural causes’

We wanted to remove Amir’s body from the Al-Iman Mosque for burial, but were told that we would first need a death certificate. The coup regime had virtually kept the dead bodies hostage until family members accepted death certificates claiming that the murdered protesters had died of “natural causes”. Otherwise, we were told, the process would be delayed for days while bodies simply decomposed.

While many people were pressured to accept this lie, my parents were determined otherwise. The next steps were to file a police report, get a case number, and hire a medical examiner to examine my brother and sign the death certificate with the real cause of death. The ordeal took an entire day, during which some relatives and I visited a nearby morgue where hundreds of dead protestors were piled. 

Despite the state of emergency, my brother’s funeral was attended by a thousand people. Travelling from the mosque to the graveyard was challenging, as many of the roads were blocked, and groups of thugs were running checkpoints, robbing, and beating people, all under the watchful eye of security forces. At one point we lost hope of reaching our destination, but we persisted and buried my brother late at night under the glow of our flashlights.

Justice for the victims

As eyewitnesses to the peaceful demonstrations held at Rabaa Square before the violent government crackdown, my family and I are under no illusions about who is responsible for these crimes against humanity. There are no words to express the pain my mother and father endured that day and since losing their son, murdered by his own government. 

We hold General Sisi, Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim, and their administration responsible for the systematic and intentional killing of Amir and his fellow protestors, whose lives were sacrificed in their unwavering struggle for freedom and democracy. Since the Rabaa tragedy one year ago, many conscientious Egyptians have sought to honour the victims by continuing their fight against tyranny and to reinstate democracy.

Sadly, my brother was correct in recognising the incompleteness of the January 25 Revolution that failed to bring an end to a brutal, repressive regime. Sisi’s military government has committed a series of horrific crimes, including mass killings and arrests, torture and abuse in prisons, and stifling all political dissent.

As I remember Amir on the one year anniversary of his death, I remember his July 3 phone call urging me to do what I can to ensure that the US government supports democracy and freedom in Egypt and not military rule. The US, the European Union, and the United Nations must commission an official investigation of the Rabaa Massacre and bring the perpetrators to justice. The international community must isolate Egypt’s military regime and deny them any form of legitimacy. Because without justice, there will never be peace or stability in Egypt.

Ahmed Bedier is an Egyptian-American social entrepreneur, non-profit CEO, radio show host, human rights and democracy advocate and television commentator. His brother Amir was shot and killed by Egypt’s security forces during the violent dispersal of Rabaa square sit-in.

Follow him on Twitter: @bedier