A battle for memory

In a narrow street in the downtown neighborhood of Abdeen, a crowd of 200 gathered on Monday under a house marked with a big red and yellow banner hanging from its balcony with the word “Gika” written on it.  

A young man stood on the balcony waving a big flag with the picture of 17-year-old Gaber Salah, known as Gika, who was killed in clashes with the police a year ago today, as the crowd chanted, “always remember and never forget, the Ministry of Interior killed Gaber.”

On the second anniversary of the clashes on downtown Cairo’s Mohamed Mahmoud Street, various political actors are appropriating the iconic battle in a process that has repeatedly distanced the event from its origins.

Those who took part in the bloody clashes between the police and protesters that ensued only months following the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011 are grieving not only the deaths of their comrades, but also the manipulation of the memory of the battle that over 50 people died for.

The battle that began on November 19, 2011 on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, when the country was under the rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, started when police violently dispersed a small sit-in held in Tahrir Square by those injured in the revolution to demand the rights they had been promised.

Thousands flocked to Tahrir to defend them and the clashes escalated into a five-day street battle centered around Mohamed Mahmoud Street. Security forces used live ammunition, pellets and tear gas on protesters, killing at least 50 people. The Muslim Brotherhood, busy with elections, dismissed the protests.  

But the battle, despite its violent and apolitical appearance, was credited largely for an accelerated transition from military to civilian rule. Some deemed it a moment of revolutionary victory, such is seldom experienced today.

A year later, in November 2012, Gika was killed when clashes erupted again between the Ministry of Interior and protesters on the battle’s first anniversary, when the country was under the rule of the Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi.

This year, the very same ministry issued a statement saluting those who died in the Mohamed Mahmoud clashes. With anger and sarcasm, some on social media compared the move to Adolf Hitler saluting the victims of the Holocaust.

The current pro-military government also inaugurated a monument in Tahrir Square on Monday commemorating its martyrs, a monument defiled by protesters hours later.

And although the initial bloody clashes took place under military rule, Nasser Refai, member of the “Complete Your Favor” campaign — which aims to convince military chief Abdel Fatah al-Sisi to run for president, since he successfully removed the Brotherhood — doesn’t see any contradiction between commemorating the events and supporting the military.

“We will have a strong presence in the events of the day, we are the ones who called on people to go down to revive the memory of the martyrs whether from the ranks of the military, the police or the people, in addition to showing our support to the military,” he says.

Refai says the Brotherhood are wrongfully propagating rumors that the military used violence against people. He blames the Brotherhood, and others who he says have an interest in destabilizing the country, for the clashes.

To complete the bringing of the military-Brotherhood rivalry to the commemoration of Mohamed Mahmoud, the National Alliance to Support Legitimacy — which consists of the Brotherhood and those who reject the removal of Morsi in July — also took part in appropriating the event. It issued a statement comparing the crackdown on the Brotherhood by the military and government to the violations against Mohamed Mahmoud protesters.

The group spoke of the events with a sympathy and reverence that sharply contrasted with their rhetoric at the time of the clashes: then it blamed protesters and failed to condemn the police brutality.

The alliance has announced that it will take part in the day’s protests and visit the houses of those who died.

On the ground, away from politics, the protesters in Mohamed Mahmoud in November 2011 were mostly young men. They were dismissed by most as thugs because of their scruffy look, and they grew bitter towards politicians busy calculating their interests while they were being killed in the street.

Similarly, most of those commemorating Gika’s death this year in Abdeen were young men in hoodies and worn-out jeans. 

As they marched to Abdeen Square, their chants focused on remembering, as if they were fighting to preserve the memory of the battle.

The marchers shouted out the names of those who died, enumerated the fatal battles that took place under military and Brotherhood rule, and laid down the facts, repeatedly chanting “remember, never forget.”

“Mohamed Mahmoud symbolizes our heroism and the treachery of all the other sides, it is our battle and they will never be able to erase it, even if all the gains that came out of it have been lost like all that preceded them,” says activist Nazly Hussein during the commemoration event in Abdeen.

For her and others, Mohamed Mahmoud epitomizes the betrayal of the revolution by the police, the military and the Brotherhood.

The events produced some of the most incriminating evidence of brutality by both civil and military police. A number of eye injuries occurred, suggesting that the police were specifically targeting eyes. A video circulated of a police officer firing a shot while another stood nearby saying, “You got him in the eye, well done sir.”

Graphic pictures emerged of the military police, which intervened in some parts of the battle, dragging bodies of dead protesters along the curb and throwing them among the garbage.

The Muslim Brotherhood was blamed for abstaining from the battle and condoning the killings while it continued to campaign days ahead of the parliamentary elections, which it won with a sweeping majority.

“They took away our dreams, so the only thing left for us is our memories, but they’re trying to steal them too,” Hussein says. “There is a very systematic plan to falsify history and create a different discourse and force it on people.”

The tarnishing of Mohamed Mahmoud’s memory is especially painful for those who took part in it, who say it stands out from other revolutionary events through a special significance.

Hussein says she considers Mohamed Mahmoud as the one street battle that was a true stand-off between revolutionaries and the state. She says the events bore witness to many acts of heroism, such as the motorcycle drivers who went to the frontline to pick up the injured, made even more admirable when other factions abandoned the fight.

Mohamed, another protester present during the original clashes and at Gika’s house two years later, says he considers those who took part in Mohamed Mahmoud and reconvene every year on the same day as “the revolutionary elite.”

For him, his Mohamed Mahmoud comrades are the few who stood their ground when many deviated from the path of the revolution, proving that they stick to their principles.

“Even if we stop going down to the streets for the whole year we will go down on this day. The memory of Mohamed Mahmoud is sacred for us,” he says.

Chanting in front of Gika’s house, Mohamed says that all the celebrations and festivities held by anyone other than his fighting comrades on this day don’t concern him.

“This is not an anniversary or celebration, I go down on this day every year to demand the rights of those who died and those who lost their eyes. We will never give up on that,” he says.

Yet despite of this group of revolutionaries’ clarity about the event, concerns over the integrity of its memory were evident.

“I thought it was impossible for them to falsify history, but now people want to believe it so much that it became possible,” Hussein says.

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