Children of members of the Muslim Brotherhood and supporters of deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi sit in swings ahead of Eid al-Fitr celebrations marking the end of the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan from Thursday to Sunday, at Rabaa Adawiya Square, where they are camping, in Nasr City, east of Cairo. Image Credit: REUTERS

Cairo: Egypt’s protests — be they anti-Mubarak in 2011 or anti-Mursi in 2012 and 2013 — have always been a family affair.

One of their characteristics was that families would come together. Children were often seen in the streets riding on their parents’ shoulders with Egyptian flags painted on their cheeks or leading chants.

Despite many warnings issued by human rights organisations that children are in danger at volatile political demonstrations, Egyptian parents usually insist that they want their children to grow up understanding what it means to stand up for their rights.

Now, in the Raba’a Al Adawiya sit-ins, Islamist supporters of ousted President Mohammad Mursi are doing the same — but with a twist.

“Mothers say they know their children could be in harm’s way but they believe their cause is worth fighting and dying for,” according to Wael Khalil, a veteran activist who advocated for the ouster of Mursi and of Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

More shocking was footage that has emerged of Egyptian children being dressed in white “death shrouds” in preparation for their “martyrdom” by pro-Mursi families in a large demonstration at Raba’a Al Adawiya last week.

The children were heard chanting pre-rehearsed lines and were seen carrying posters that read “I am ready to [become a] martyr!” during a short march.

“As I saw the face of a five-year-old carrying his coffin and innocently smiling out of happiness because he’s participating along with other children in a big game, I felt disgusted. These people are willing to murder children in order to make political gains,” said Azza Al Ashmawi, director of the Child Anti-Trafficking Unit at the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood NCCM.

“This is a cruel picture that the Brotherhood thought would help them gain global sympathy as the world watches”, Azza added.

“We are willing to offer more martyrs to our cause. We will not hesitate to sacrifice our children as martyrs in order to restore Egypt’s Mohammad Mursi,” said a female Brotherhood leader during the funerals of three women who were killed in a protest in Al Mansoura last month.

Azza considered these children’s parents as either brainwashed by the Brotherhood’s leadership or convinced that their children will go to heaven or paid for allowing their children to participate in the protest.

More dangerous is that some orphanages affiliated to the Brotherhood involved orphans in this battle, according to a statement issued by the Interior Ministry two days before. The statement accused the Brotherhood of committing a criminal violation of human rights.

“Although they are the ones pushing them to the front rows of clashes, the Brotherhood aims to exploit the injury of children and market it to the world public opinion as an aggression against children,” the statement reads.

Witnesses confirm that Raba’a Al Adawiya’s protesters are exploiting children, using them to collect and break rocks in order to use them in clashes against the army, the police and their opponents.

The United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) voiced its deep concern over reports that children were being dragged into violent protests in Egypt in a manner that subjected them to destructive repercussions in the long run.

“Disturbing images of children taken during street protests indicate that, on some occasions, children have been deliberately used and put at risk as potential witnesses to or victims of violence,” Philippe Duamelle, Unicef representative in Egypt, said in a statement.

“Such actions can have a long-lasting and devastating physical and psychological impact on children,” Duamelle added.

The former chairman of the State Information Service (SIS) Mohammad Badr Eddin said during an interview with CBC TV channel on Sunday that he called officials from Unicef Cairo office to attend the conference held by the SIS last week but he knew that they had received threats from the Muslim Brotherhood after issuing a statement on the phenomenon of children’s exploitation in demonstrations.

The National Council for Childhood and Motherhood (NCCM) also condemned the Brotherhood’s exploitation of children. It voiced its disappointment over the violation of children’s rights, using them in armed clashes to achieve personal gains and sabotaging the country for the sake of keeping a government that people reject.

The council submitted an official complaint to the General Prosecutor demanding to take the necessary measures to forcefully evacuate children from the area of Raba’ Al Adawiya.

“The use of children and women as human shields represents a violation of the international and religious norms,” said Ambassador Mervat Al Tellawi, Secretary General of the at a press conference.

Under both international and local law, using children under 18 years as a tool for politics and placing them at severe risk of death or injury is illegal.

With an impending dispersion by the government of the pro-Mursi protests at Raba’a Al Adawiya and Al Nahda squares, it is possible that the lives of hundreds, of children will be put at severe risk.

— Sharaf is a journalist based in Cairo