Since the assassination of President Sadat in October 1981, Egypt has experienced three waves of armed violence and terror attacks. Under Mubarak’s rule, the first wave – ostensibly dominated by the activities of Al Jama’a Al-Islamiya in Cairo and Upper Egypt – led to hundreds of deaths, including a large attack on tourists at the Temple of Hatshebsut on 18 November 1997.[3] The second wave centred on Al-Tawhid wal-Gehad’s attacks in Sinai following the Western intervention in Iraq, and featured multiple bloody and visible attacks (Taba and Nuwabie in 2004, Sharm El Sheikh in 2005, Dahab in 2006). But it is the third wave that has really captured international attention.[4]

Mubarak to Morsi

During Mubarak’s 30-year reign, a cocktail of widespread police brutality, state-of-emergency laws, illegitimate elections, minimal freedom of speech, extensive corruption and severe economic marginalisation created a suffocating environment for many Egyptians. As pro-democracy protests swept the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, widespread popular demonstrations erupted on 25 January 2011 – on the national ‘police day’. Tens of thousands flooded the streets – in Tahrir Square in Cairo, in Alexandria, Suez, North Sinai, and in other major cities and areas across the country – as the revolution took hold. Eighteen days later, after mass protests across the country, Mubarak resigned and a new era for Egypt began.

The January 25 Revolution led to the country’s first fair multi-candidate presidential elections. Of the 13 contenders, two would advance to the final round: Ahmed Shafik, a former prime minister of the Mubarak era, and Mohammed Morsi, a senior member of the Egyptian MB. The toxic legacy of the Mubarak regime led many revolutionary groups to back Morsi despite some trepidation about his Islamist governing agenda and association with radical views. Seen by many as the lesser of two evils, Morsi won over 51 per cent of the vote to become the first democratically elected president of Egypt.

Mohamed Morsi pictured as early vote counts suggested he would become the first democratically elected president of Egypt, June 2012. Photo: Jonathan Rashad

Mohamed Morsi pictured as early vote counts suggested he would become the first democratically elected president of Egypt, June 2012. Photo: Jonathan Rashad

Morsi’s government came to power in a highly polarised environment. Many secular and liberal segments of society were staunchly opposed to his agenda, but a deal struck with key figures from the revolutionary movements – dubbed the Fairmont Agreement – enabled Morsi to garner initial support beyond the Brotherhood. This deal involved the launch of a ‘national unity project’, forming a ‘national salvation government’ headed by an independent political figure with representatives from all political forces, and reflecting Egypt's political diversity within the president’s team.[5]

For the non-MB elements who enabled Morsi’s electoral victory, the Fairmont Agreement was a way to fulfil the promise of the revolution. But as Morsi’s government began to disregard these commitments, and as socio-economic progress stalled, the movements and activists who had helped him reach the presidency began to turn on him. Morsi’s poisoned chalice grew yet more bitter when a new constitution was forced through under very questionable circumstances. This fuelled massive protests across the country. At this point the Egyptian Army, which had also not relished the prospect of prosecutions for Mubarak-era crimes, decided to step in and remove Morsi from office. 

As General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi rose to power, MB supporters organised peaceful sit-ins in Rabaa and Nahda squares in Cairo and Giza as a show of support for Morsi and to protest against what they considered to be an illegal military coup against an elected president. The sit-ins lasted 48 days until on 14 August 2013 the government crushed the protestors.

Reports differ on the number of victims, but sources suggest the army and police’s actions caused the deaths of around 900 people.[6] With strong evidence of government forces firing on protesters and using armoured vehicles to mow through crowds, Human Rights Watch believes the Rabaa Massacre could amount to a crime against humanity.   

The forced removal of Morsi from office by military coup on 3 July 2013 and the subsequent crackdown on pro-Morsi demonstrators ignited the third wave of violence.

Header photo: Suspected supporters of local militants detained by the Egyptian army during counter-terror operations that according to the army killed 40 people over eight days in July 2017. Photo: Official Facebook page of the Egyptian Army Spokesperson


3. Stanford University, ‘Mapping Militant Organizations’, Al Jama’a Al-Islamiya

4. Taba in 2004, Sharm El Sheikh in 2005, and Dahab in 2006.

5. Shukrallah (2013), 'Once election allies, Egypt's “Fairmont” opposition turn against Morsi’, Ahram Online, 27 June

6. Four years after the massacre, the final death toll remains unclear. From the first hours following the events the numbers became politicised. MB sources announced that thousands were killed; state and pro-state media offered the lowest estimates. The minimum figure appears to be 632 deaths in the dispersal of the Rabaa sit-in alone, which was the figure given by the pro-government National Human Rights Council in its report. Human Rights Watch reported 904 deaths (817 in Rabaa and 87 in Nahda); the independent initiative to document the revolution (Wiki Thawra) reported 932 deaths in Rabaa alone.