Maspero and memory

Two years ago today, just after sunset, the Egyptian army murdered 28 people in the span of perhaps fifteen minutes. Many were shot, several were run over by armored vehicles zigzagging up and down the Corniche, and all this took just fifteen minutes.

Bodies were carried into the lobby of an apartment building, held there for fear of what would be done to them if they were found by the soldiers outside­ who were seething with rage, hatred and a violent impulse that one can scarcely understand, even now. The dead were almost all Coptic Christian demonstrators, many of them were not even associated with the revolution or politically inclined but came to march for the church that had been burned to the ground that week in Upper Egypt. This was hardly the first time that churches had been burned or destroyed without the protection of the security forces or coverage by the media.

These protesters sought to draw attention to their cause by protesting at Maspero, the headquarters of Egyptian state television; the irony would be that as the cameras focused on them it would only be to scream that Copts were attacking the army, that honorable citizens should descend to repel them and protect the army.

Maspero was not the last massacre we would see, but it remains singular as a pivot on which so much other political memory swings

I had joined the march with two friends almost by chance — it did not have the same publicity as many political events. The usual group of activists was not there, perhaps didn’t even know about it. But we were there in solidarity, against sectarianism, against a bankrupt state media, against military rule and against the regime that thrives off these poisons. It was, notwithstanding this lack of publicity, an enormous procession, but marked by many families, old folks and children, and we laughed at the time that people didn’t even seem to know the chants that had become so natural to us in the past nine months. The killing began before the bulk of the marchers had even reached the building. Within minutes we found ourselves cowering underneath a large concrete ramp leading to the October 6 bridge, the only space where the APCs that were crashing into people and cars alike would not be able to reach us.

The clashes raged on through the night, and when I finally worked up the nerve to go home three days later, the graffiti in front of my house that had for months read, “The army are traitors” now simply proclaimed “THE ARMY.” The next weeks, too, saw a mindless lionization of the army and fervent denials that the massacre had even occurred. The Maspero Massacre became — and remains — our first experience in the collective erasure of murder.

In July this year, over 50 people were killed in front of the Republican Guard headquarters, this time supporters of deposed President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. I went to the site to film testimonies, and was stunned as many declaimed that this was the first time that the Egyptian army had killed peaceful demonstrators. I put the question to two men trying to tell me this, asking them about all the other times, asking them about Maspero, Mohamed Mahmoud and the Cabinet — which all occurred in the final three months of 2011 as power was held by the military council. They mumbled some quick deferral or other and fell silent. Perhaps the omission is not surprising. The stage at the sit-in itself, meanwhile, had been spewing sectarian rhetoric against Christians for weeks; remembering Maspero could never happen alongside this incitement and hatred. Two weeks later a hundred more would be killed by police, and two weeks after that over 600 would be murdered in 6 hours as the Rabea al-Adaweya sit-in was cleared.

One should neither have to make nor deny comparisons between Rabea and Maspero. Yes, in both cases we saw the same army and police committing massacres, a media blackout, a cover-up or even justification of murder amid a cheering nationalist chorus. At the same time, their causes were different, their situations different, and the politics surrounding them were different.

In Rabea, there was the pretense at least of two opposing sides, and the pretext of a group which had been branded enemies of the state and were dealt with accordingly; the police did not even lie about the deaths they inflicted. In Maspero, however, the massacre came not as an outcome of a fight between grossly uneven forces, but as a shock, a flash of death and violence. In Maspero, the marchers were not enemies of the state but minorities, and the army and state that perpetrated the massacre was the same one that grounded its legitimacy on protecting those minorities.

This is, to me, what seems uniquely perverse about Maspero: That there was no way even for it to be framed as conflict or clash, it was a pure massacre that so clearly laid bare the hypocrisy and violence of the regime. Nevertheless, remembering Maspero in the aftermath of Rabea, and amidst the new frenzy of support not just for the military and the police, but for their most violent, oppressive behaviors, gives remembering Maspero a renewed urgency.       

Those who forget history may be condemned to repeat it, but even remembering does not free us from the possibility that this may happen again. Memory may provide succor, influence our actions, but remembering alone cannot change things, particularly when remembrance is itself a struggle.

Walter Benjamin wrote that, “The only writer of history with the gift of setting alight the sparks of hope in the past, is the one who is convinced of this: that not even the dead will be safe from the enemy, if he is victorious. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.” Maspero is the point that most strongly reminds us of this, as it has been covered up not once but twice. It remains a battleground, a clear vision of that enemy.

Maspero was not the last massacre we would see, but it remains singular as a pivot on which so much other political memory swings. To hold onto the pain and anger of that day, and to name the enemy unflinchingly, even through such darkness as we now face, is a way by which we may force ourselves to continue to struggle, or at the very least to preserve the struggle, ensuring that it does not die.