The months of 2011 are remembered less by their names than acts of violence — clashes of varying intensity between protesters and security bodies took place in every month except May, and over a thousand people were killed during the events.
Aside from the 18 days of the revolution itself, there is one event from that tumultuous year that is particularly seared into people’s memories, and which is commemorated in a way the others are not: The Maspero massacre of October 9.
A protest against sectarianism had set off from the Cairo district of Shubra shortly after on that day. Two hours later, at its final destination at the state television building known as Maspero, 27 of the protesters were killed, either by the army’s bullets or under the wheels of their armed personnel carriers in a haze of furious and brutal violence.
It was a terrible scene, but how is it different from the orgy of killing during the 18 days, or the night of when the lights were turned off in Tahrir Square and masked soldiers opened fire on protesters there, killing two? Mada Masr posed this question.
Dina Makram-Ebeid, writing on Facebook, says that Maspero remains “the massacre of all massacres, our first most fresh post-Mubarak wound.” Soraya Morayef describes it as a “turning point” and “the biggest defeat and the worst atrocity, especially because of the visuals.”
These visuals, the APCs wildly driving into human beings, the horror of the morgue, created a visceral reaction. They both transcended anything that came before and were the first blows that would dull and inure the collective consciousness to the acts of extreme — and routine — violence that came after them.
The nature of the march itself also sets Maspero apart from other protests that have ended in violence, and which involved a battle, albeit one-sided, between security forces and protesters who anticipated and were prepared for — and on occasions even sought — a confrontation.
Karim Medhat Ennarah says that Maspero “is the only incident that meets the more restrictive definition of a massacre, in the sense that people were standing there doing nothing particularly provocative and started getting shot and run over by tanks.”
“Every other incident, despite a much bigger death toll, involved some kind of resistance and proactivity on part of the protesters, which then prompted the state to massacre them afterwards,” Ennarah says.
And then there are the protesters themselves, their aims, their motivations.
“The difference to me is that there were no front lines and a dignified fight. There was a march of women, children and those believing Egypt is theirs at last, and must fight even the church for their rights as citizens,” Sally Toma says.
Ahmed al-Sayed posits that the fact that the protesters were Christians marching for “simple rights rather than any specific political ideology” might be what separates Maspero from other events.
Hanaa Safwat was shocked that the protesters were killed by the very group from whom they were seeking protection — the military, which at that time was running the country.
“It was the first time to see a minority being murdered so openly and so violently. There was something so brutal about it, about the idea of running over a person’s body with an APC; it’s what happened to my grandfather in 1967 by the Israeli army. But tanks, to see it, and to see the army go after the weakest link, was I think a turning point,” Safwat says.
The very different public reaction to the killing by security forces of 600 protesters taking part in the pro-Mohamed Morsi sit-in at Rabea al-Adaweya in August of this year illustrates how complicated political death has become, and how it reveals more about the living than the deceased.
This itself began with Maspero, when state television announced that Coptic protesters had killed soldiers, while the opposite happened directly below the building. Christians in the vicinity of Maspero were attacked at random, and in the days that followed the vastly disproportionate death toll (one soldier died) was not apparently enough to dispel the belief, harbored by some, that Christians had instigated events.
Laleh Khalili notes that the event was significant “because it showed that a lot of the sectarian violence is produced by the state and its security apparatuses, rather than ‘spontaneously’ emerging out of the public.”
Comparing Maspero to Rabea al-Adaweya, Lobna Darwish says that even though Rabea and Maspero are similar “when it comes to the violence and the silence or cheers in the streets while they happened, they’re very different.”
“Maspero was a cry for a better country that would include us all, while Rabea was a fight over power by people whose project by definition contradicted with ours, and excluded us and the people who were in the Maspero march. I have a big problem with equating the two events,” Darwish says.
Ennarah says he will never mark Rabea in the way that he commemorates Maspero, because commemoration is a “political act.” While he sympathizes with the death of his foes on a humanitarian level, those killed at Rabea “were a group of people who were essentially angry because they were ousted from power, and who on any other day would be happy to see me get shot and die as well.”
Yahya Abu Youssef suggests that, “these separate tragedies, massacres, have political identities, like political characters. Like political characters, we have biases based upon our own political identity. The state, as shown, doesn’t discriminate who it kills. But we discriminate based on who the victims were and what they wanted.”
Alaa Abd El Fattah describes Rabea as a “singularity,” saying there is a “world pre-Rabea and a totally different world” after it.
He adds that while he understands why Rabea doesn’t move people like Maspero does, “what I don’t understand is the inability to comprehend the scale of a massacre if you know you will not commemorate it, and also the inability to admit that for others it is as traumatic as Maspero”.
Perhaps the singular most iconic image to come out of Maspero is that of Mina Daniel, the young activist killed during the protest whose memory is kept alive in graffiti, on flags, and by those who knew and loved him, or loved him even without knowing him.
Parastou Hassouri refers to a profile of Daniel in which a Salafi said that Daniel was the first Christian friend he had, and that he had tried to hate him but found him impossible to hate.
Toma, who knew Daniel personally, says that Maspero has special meaning for her because of his death.
“He was what I want Christians to be: Egyptians first.”