Egypt’s military rulers have a great stake in what is remembered and what is forgotten about the past three years of the country’s history. The clumsy and deeply insulting effort to memorialize the revolution’s martyrs at the center of Tahrir Square is only the most conspicuous attempt on the military’s part to control the narrative of Egypt’s recent past — and arguably, the least dangerous. Of far greater concern are the attempts not to build, but to erase — the repeated whitewashing of the graffiti that has adorned the walls of Mohamed Mahmoud, or the landscaping and painting in the vicinity of Rabea al-Adaweya.
Yet, these are only the most material manifestations of a broader, deeper effort in erasure. Egyptians are told day after day that they are engaged in an existential struggle against terrorism. The specter of potential fifth columnists is regularly trotted out to harden the now ubiquitous senses of fear and resentment that pervade the population. And papering over such profound anxieties about the future of the country is a cult of the leader, the like of which Egypt has scarcely seen in sixty years of military rule.
All the while, each of the central pillars of the 2011 revolution — “bread, freedom, and social justice” — would remain fundamentally unaddressed by the state, but form the determined efforts of courageous labor and human rights activists. While there are those who would suggest that Egypt has now merely returned to the status quo ante of the Mubarak years’ security state, the persistence of the language and ideals of the 2011 revolution in various, often unexpected quarters reveals that the lies of the state are not left unchallenged. Indeed, the grassroots organizations taking action on issues ranging from sectarian discrimination to sexual harassment to neighborhood revitalization counter the notion that the revolution has failed.
If these organizations represent one of the greatest legacies of the 2011 revolution, then the greatest threat to that legacy is clearly the persistent efforts of Egypt’s military rulers to circumscribe and prohibit their activities. There could exist no greater blot on the spirit of the revolution than the draft protest law recently endorsed by the Cabinet, which represents an unmistakable threat to the very principle of grassroots organizing.
The monuments that Egypt’s military regime erects in an effort to appropriate the memory of the martyrs for its narrow political purposes amply deserve the reproach and vandalism to which they are subjected. But to my mind, the far greater challenge to the elitism and arrogance of the regime is to insist on filling the void that it creates as it seeks to erase the past — to fill the whitewashed walls with new graffiti reflecting the struggles of the past and the future, and to fill the squares with protest.
The military regime would make the martyrs and the revolution into a museum piece. But surely the greatest tribute one could pay to those martyrs is to ensure that the revolution for which they gave their lives persists, until Egyptians have bread, freedom, and social justice.