So Who Killed the Protesters?

Who killed the protesters? This question was the headline of almost every major Egyptian newspaper, after charges against former president Hosni Mubarak were dropped, and his interior minister Habib al-Adly, and six ministry aides were cleared of charges in what was known as “the trial of the century.” In addition to corruption charges, Mubarak was on trial for his role in the death of hundreds of civilians during the January 2011 uprising. The question is asked at times seriously, and at others mockingly. It’s asked by those who believe the verdict is fair and those who question the judiciary’s independence.

Blaming the Brotherhood
Blaming the Muslim Brotherhood appeared to be the easiest way to pacify public opinion, while not holding the former regime accountable. In his article ‘Who killed the protesters?’ journalist Abdel Rahim Ali cites the testimony of late state security officer Mohamed Mabrouk, given during the trial of ousted president Mohamed Morsi. According to Mabrouk, who was assassinated on November 17, 2013 reportedly by Islamist jihadists, a meeting was held in Damascus in November 2010 under the auspices of the Muslim Brotherhood. This meeting included chairman of the Center for Strategic Research at Iran’s Expediency Discernment Council Ali Akbar Velayati, senior commander at the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Ali Fadavi, and head of the Hamas’ politburo Khaled Maashal. “It was in this meeting that the deal was struck,” Ali said, quoting Mabrouk.

“The Iranian Revolutionary Guard was to train militants that would be later taken to Egypt through Gaza.” The plan, according to Mabrouk’s investigations, was to attack detention facilities and police stations in order to deal a fatal blow to the Egyptian police, as well as to shoot at civilian protesters to implicate Mubarak’s regime. “Colonel Mabrouk detailed in the testimony for which he paid with his life how this plan was carried out on January 28, 2011,” added Ali, one of the bloodiest of the eighteen days before Mubarak stepped down. For Ali, Mabrouk’s findings offer definitive proof that the police was not the real culprit. Ali also cited the testimonies of former Mubarak-era officials, Intelligence Chief General Murad Mowafi and former Defense Minister Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, both denying the police’s responsibility for the death of protesters.

A Transparent Argument

While they are among the staunchest critics of Brotherhood rule, secular activists and movements refused the offering of scapegoats to absolve Mubarak’s security forces. The April 6 Youth Movement, also opponents of the current regime, objected to pressing criminal charges against Mubarak and his interior minister from the outset. They argued that all the defendants should have been tried for their political responsibility. “In the absence of clear penalties for such crimes in the Egyptian penal code, a criminal trial was of course expected to yield such results,” said Mohamed Salah, member of the movement’s politburo. Salah added that evidence that criminally implicated the police had been destroyed.

Activist and filmmaker Khaled Youssef, who campaigned for President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, wrote an open letter to the prosecutor general in which he, as an eyewitness to the violations of the police on January 28, vehemently objected to the verdict. Youssef refuted allegations that Brotherhood snipers were responsible for all the killings. “Although I admit that, given Muslim Brotherhood’s history of violence, this scenario is not unlikely, there has been no proof so far,” he wrote. “Even if the Brotherhood had snipers, what about other protesters who died under the wheels of armored vehicles in front of us, or were shot by police officers also in front of us? Those are incidents that were recorded and shown on TV.” The interior minister and his aides, Youssef added, should also be tried for more general crimes like the abuses citizens were exposed to at police stations.      

The Court’s Culpability      

Journalist Sahar Talaat argues in her article ’Who Killed the protesters?’ that the judiciary only focused on the acquittal of the former interior minister and his aides, while totally ignoring the necessity of revealing who is responsible. For Talaat, accusations leveled against the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, or any other external parties are not confirmed, thus leaving the question unanswered. “The court only focused on acquitting the defendants while the families of dead protesters are still suffering as they wonder, ‘Who killed our children?’ Is it the Muslim Brotherhood or Hamas or foreign powers that wanted to undermine the Egyptian state,” she wrote. “The end result is that those martyrs are not avenged.”    
Legal expert Tarek Negeda explained a point that appears to have been lost in translation in the local media circus: that the verdict does not mean the protesters were killed by another party. “The verdict is not proof that Mubarak and his aides did not kill the protesters,” he said in a press statement. “It only proves that there was a legal mistake on the part of the prosecution.” Negeda explained that the defendants were not acquitted, but the charges against them were dropped owing to the absence of criminal evidence and the court ruled accordingly. Negeda refused to question the independence of the Egyptian judiciary and advised families of dead protesters to focus on reopening the case inside Egypt rather than through international courts. Families of the victims announced their intention to submit an official request to the Egyptian president to facilitate the release of videos that show the shootings whether taken by state institutions like State Security, intelligence agencies, and state TV or by foreign satellites belonging to the US, Russia, and the European Union.       
In the midst of this heated debate and the different versions of the story that accompany it, one group seems to be certain of what really happened. Protesters who were there on January 28, 2011 say, without a doubt that, after failing to disperse the growing crowds with tear gas, they started using rubber bullets followed by live ammunition. Those who witnessed the day first-hand are not willing to accept the verdict, whether it is the result of intentional destruction of evidence or a coincidental procedural error. It is hard for many not to perceive how flawed the course of the trial has been from the beginning with senior officials being held accountable criminally rather than politically. The January 28 protesters who survived, stand by their narrative: in a regime as centralized as Mubarak’s, it is extremely unlikely for security forces to embark on a violent clampdown without being instructed, if not by the president then at least by the minister of interior.           
The verdict leaves Egypt in a state of intense polarization once more, and introduces another wave of division. On the one hand, there is the camp that has, for a while, been willing to trust state institutions and accept regime policies in return for a much awaited return to normalcy. On the other, are those who prioritize the goals of the revolution and see a grassroots restructuring of executive and judiciary authorities as inevitable.  It is worth noting, however, that members of the second camp, though indignant, made it clear that the verdict came as no surprise and was, in fact, quite expected. The earlier acquittal of all police officers tried for killing protesters already casted doubts on the entire process. Nevertheless, the shock prevails maybe not because of the outcome of the trial, but rather for what is seen by many as the final nail in the revolution’s coffin.

Sonia Farid, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of English Literature at Cairo University. She is a translator, editor, and political activist. Her social work focuses on political awareness and women’s rights and her writing interests include society, politics, and security in Egypt. She took part in a number of local and international conferences and published several academic papers. She can be reached at

Image: Photo: Former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak waves to his supporters as he returns to Maadi military hospital in Cairo November 29, 2014 (Reuters/Asmaa Waguih)