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The politics of remembering death

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Dr. H.A. Hellyer

Dr. H.A. Hellyer

A group of peaceful protesters marched, and were set upon by official state forces – at the end of the violence, 28 people were dead, and more than 200 people were injured. At the time, human rights activists insisted that not only should an investigation take place into the killings: but that it should be an independent one, that the armed forces and security establishment could not influence or control, leading to the prosecution of those responsible.

That was 9 October 2011. Two years ago today – it was at Maspero, the headquarters of the national television apparatus. A largely (but not exclusively) Coptic Christian march intended to result in a sit-in there, identifying early on in Egypt’s revolution that whoever controls the national narrative, controls the levers of power. That same apparatus presented a narrative where the victims of these killings became the guilty party – and it was accepted by huge swathes of the public. A year ago, a group of pro-revolutionary activists refused to let the memory of Maspero die – and today, many of them, from varying & different political backgrounds will try to go to Maspero again. The very act of remembrance, for them, is an act of defiance against the powers that be – until those who are responsible for these deaths are brought to justice. Something that few among the powers that be intend.

Today, the country ought to be in national mourning. Mourning for those unarmed protesters who were killed two years ago today – and mourning for those who were killed three days ago. On 6 October 2013, while the country was generally celebrating the Egyptian military for its conduct in the 1973 October War, more than 50 pro-Muslim Brotherhood/anti-military protesters were killed in clashes in Cairo with the police and pro-state (armed) vigilante groups. The Ministry of Interior did not report any fatalities vis-à-vis the police forces. Indeed, there were no reports of any causality among state forces at all in these protests. A year from now, there will be another type of vigil, one assumes. And, one assumes, that vigil will still be demanding justice for the deaths – because, one continues to assume, no justice would have been served.

Egypt is certainly a land of ironies. While the killings at Maspero were taking place in 2011, the Muslim Brotherhood did not rally to the aid of those suffering from state violence. On the contrary – it validated and supported the then military regime of Field Marshal Tantawi. A year later, revolutionary activists took them to task on that, during the anniversary, when the Muslim Brotherhood attempted to rewrite its role in supporting the state narrative before. A year after that, it was the Muslim Brotherhood backed rally against the military that was attacked by state forces.

While that protest was resulting in dozens of unarmed civilians being killed, representatives of the state went to the memorial in Nasser City, to remember and pay their respects to the fallen military of the 1973 war. The ironies abound: while one faction remembers one tragedy, other members of their faction are carrying out another tragedy. That tragedy is against another faction, who not so long ago was content to validate another tragedy, carried out by the faction that is now against them, against yet another part of Egypt.

That is where, it seems, Egypt has come to: a place of tragedy and remembering. But only remembering the tragedy that is against your clique – your camp – your tribe – your cause. Not simply the tragedy of death; not simply the sadness accompanied by the loss of life. For all that people try to make it into a ‘human’ issue, where all blood ought to be considered as sacred, it is not that. It cannot be that, unless all blood, indeed, is sacred. Until then, the cycle continues – death, tragedy, and the remembrance of it, but only selectively. How unselective you are, when it comes to recognising and honouring those losses you know about, even if they are not personal to you and your cause, does say something about you.

The proponents of Tahrir Square demanded that a full and open investigation be undertaken to prosecute those who killed protesters during the 18 days, and those calls for public enquiries continued with the killings in Maspero. They continued also after the killings in Mohammed Mahmoud Street in November 2011; outside the Presidential Palace during Mohamed Morsi’s tenure in December 2012; outside the Republican Guard in July 2013 after his ouster – and the most intense loss of life of all. The forced dispersal of the pro-Morsi sit-in in Rabaa only three months ago, that led to what Human Rights Watch called, “the most serious incident of mass unlawful killings in modern Egyptian history”, is not the subject of a public enquiry. It’s hardly likely to be a place anytime soon where presidents and politicians speak of the mistakes that led to it, pray for the dead, and urge for discipline in ensuring it never happens again. Remember the dead, certainly – but only when it is your dead.

Today, all Egyptians ought to mourn the dead of Maspero. It should not be revolutionary activists at Maspero – it should be the state and all political forces. Next month, all of them ought to mourn the dead of Mohammed Mahmoud; in December all of them ought to mourn the dead of Ittahedeya; and next year, they ought to remember the dead of the Republican Guard killings, Rabaa, and the killings that just took place a few days ago. A single death where the state has even the slightest bit of responsibility should be the impetus for a wide scale enquiry.  Instead, we see dozens and hundreds dying – and still no deep security sector reform has taken place, with little likelihood of that happening soon.

There is another way. That other way is when all life is considered to be sacred – that, indeed, when one life is lost, all humankind is lost. That other way is what has been called for since the first days of the Egyptian revolution – accountability for the loss of life, and remembering its sacredness, regardless of who is killed, or who does the killings. Call it revolutionary. Call it ‘Islamic’. Or call it human. Call it what you want – but try to call it so that no Egyptian will ever call it anything ever again. Because if there are no more deadly tragedies, there won’t be a need to investigate them.

About the author

Dr H.A. Hellyer

Dr H.A. Hellyer

Dr H A Hellyer, a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, is a Cairo-based specialist on Arab affairs, and relations between the Muslim world and the west. Fellow at ISPU, he was previously senior practice consultant at Gallup, and senior research fellow at Warwick University. Find him online @hahellyer and www.hahellyer.com .


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