On owning the memory of the martyrs

Egypt’s political martyrs have been imbued with various contradictory meanings, vices, virtues and intentions over the last few years. Ownership of the history of the revolution has been intertwined with stories about those who have died.

But this isn’t an attempt to eulogize or demythologize the narratives about the tragic deaths of individuals, but rather to illustrate the various ways in which they have been used by political groups and the state to reconstruct events in the popular imagination as part of the contestation over power.

An accurate death toll is difficult to determine, but an aggregation from various sources — and most likely an underestimate — would indicate there have been at least 4500* deaths due to political violence in the past three years.

Most Egyptians know the names and stories of some 10-15 popular heroes or victims, depending on their political affiliations. So, what makes iconic martyrs? Why do the memories of some martyrs work emotionally in the political realm better than others? And what about the thousands of unknown dead, or silenced martyrs?

There are many factors that have contributed to the canonising of certain martyrs, including the nature and cause of death. Widely circulated images of brutality have appealed to both a local and international audience based on a discourse of human rights. But, Khaled Saeed, for example, was not the first or last victim of police brutality, nor Mina Daniel the first Coptic Christian to die at the hands of the state. Aspects of their lived experiences have also found resonance within wider society. Stories of Khaled’s online escapism and desire to emigrate represented a frustrated generation; Mina’s enthusiasm for a collective solution to poverty for all Egyptians, as told by his friends, and his reported desire for interfaith unity, as seen in a song he recorded in Tahrir Square on January 31, 2011, reflected a sense of togetherness in the early days and a spirit of solidarity with Egypt’s Christians after the Maspero massacre.

The literal meaning of “shaheed” (martyr) is “to witness,” and is therefore entwined with aspects of truth and justice. Although “shahadah” has Islamic and Christian antecedents, it has been used popularly in Egypt’s recent history to refer to thousands of deaths, regardless of religious affiliation or political intent. However, the ubiquitous use of the term has been controversial with some religious figures. Spokesman of al-Daawa al-Salafiya (“The Salafi Call”) and member of the Nour party, Abdel Moneim al-Shahat, gave a Friday sermon following the Port Said football stadium massacre, in which he claimed the victims should not be considered martyrs: “Not everyone who dies unjustly is a martyr, and those who died at Port Said can be said to have died unjustly, but no more than that.” But the Port Said martyrs were situated by many within the context of ongoing struggle against Egypt’s authorities and security forces, with some blaming the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) for deliberate negligence in retribution for the role the Ultras played in the Mohamed Mahmoud battles.

In a context in which the interim government is keen to wipe out certain aspects of collective memory and re-write the story of the last few years, the martyrs represent symbolic capital; a way of assigning blame, affirming narratives and unifying people.

Both presidential candidates Mohamed Morsi and Ahmed Shafiq used images of Mina Daniel, who was killed during the bloody events of Maspero, as a “mascot” during their opposing election campaigns in 2012. Morsi invited the families of the martyrs to the presidential palace shortly after he was elected to power — including Khaled Saeed’s mother and Mina Daniel’s sister — in an effort to position himself as a “revolutionary president.”

In November 2013, two years after the violent Mohamed Mahmoud clashes, Egypt’s interim authorities built a monument in Tahrir to commemorate, in the words of its promoters, the dead of the January 25 and June 30 revolutions. Within 12 hours of its inauguration, the monument had been defaced and destroyed, with graffiti reading, “The army and the Brotherhood are both traitors and murderers.”

The state has sought to differentiate between those who have died for a cause deemed worthy, and dissidents who do not get the honor of being described as a “martyr,” but are labelled “baltageyya” (thugs), “terrorists,” or “conspirators.”

Following the fall of Mubarak, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) established a victims fund for families of the martyrs and the injured, which some argue has been used to bribe families into quiet acceptance of the deaths of their loved ones. Compensation has been sporadic depending on whom a board of decision makers deems worthy of the “martyrs crown,” and there have been reports of mismanagement and corruption.

Debate raged over the character of Sally Zahran, as well as the cause of her death. Her family gave an interview on February 24, 2011, denying privately-owned newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm’s February 6 account that she died from a brain haemorrhage after being beaten by thugs on her way to Tahrir Square on January 28. They said that she was trying to leave the house to join protests against her mother’s will and had either jumped or fallen from the family’s ninth floor balcony. Some believe her family were blackmailed into publicly contradicting the story of her death. It has also been a matter of controversy whether or not Zahran was veiled. Her brother and friends have claimed that she wasn’t, but rumours that her family were unhappy about the use of her un-veiled image prompted the production of a number of posters with her face scribbled out, as well as digitally altered versions of photos with added hijab.

Any nationalist narrative selectively remembers, as it selectively forgets. The martyrs of 2011, 2012 and 2013, those who have and will be incorporated into the national pantheon, are constantly changing. Individuals named by the state the “martyrs of the revolution” were once the victims of Mubarak-era regime brutality and are now fatalities blamed on Brotherhood-associated violence.

State efforts to discredit the memories of martyrs that were at some point iconic —and by association taint the revolution — have been prolific. The ongoing trial of Khaled Saeed is a case in point, with the lawyers representing the accused officers in their appeal claiming it was a Zionist conspiracy.

On January 23 2014, just prior to the January 25 anniversary celebrations, commemorations and protests, interim President Adly Mansour decided to bestow honorary awards on 256 killed police officers and conscripts as “martyrs.” State-run daily newspaper Al-Akhbar featured pictures of the victims with a reminder that “we must not forget the martyrs of the revolution, who were killed by deceitful bullets of the revolution’s thieves and thugs and those who hate Egypt.” Whereas in 2011 the police and security forces were blamed for the killing of protesters, in 2013-14 they are the heroes of a battle against terrorism.

Artist Ammar Abu Bakr has sought to tell a different story. Known for his images of revolutionary martyrs in downtown Cairo, Abu Bakr says he depicts various martyrs of the revolution in order to “expose their killers.” One such piece is of Belal Ali Saber — an 18-year-old who was killed on October 11, 2013 near Rabea al-Adaweya, during a protest to mark 100 days since the former president’s ouster. His death would have gone largely unnoticed in the context of the state’s battle against terrorism. Abu Bakr and graffiti artist El-Zeft created a mural to his memory in downtown Cairo, depicting the face of his killer from a video on YouTube.  Abu Bakr had similarly illustrated an eye sniper from the battle of Mohamed Mahmoud in 2011, pointing the finger of blame very clearly at security forces.

So, who should be able to speak in the name of the martyrs? On April 14, 2012, the father of Anas — a 14-year-old killed during the Port Said football stadium massacre in February 2012 — objected to the use of his son’s image by revolutionaries, particularly the April 6 Youth Movement, as a symbol against SCAF and in promotion of a general strike. This prompted an online debate regarding the use of the memories of the martyrs to serve the political interests of certain groups.

Mahmoud Salem (better known by his internet pseudonym, Sandmonkey) tweeted that “it is somehow never considered that the families might be against the revolution, that they might blame the revolutionaries [for] the chaos… We assume that the martyrs who die are our martyrs, and that their families are with us, without much backing this up at all… And this is not new; remember Sally Zahran? Her family was the same way, and did we care? No, her picture was used everywhere… I mean, whomever used Anas’s funeral to spread pamphlets pro the civil disobedience is a disgusting opportunist who has no respect.”

In response to Salem’s tweets, Hisham al-Khazindar wrote: “With full empathy and respect for the families’ grief, the martyrs are national symbols, no longer just sons and daughters.”

Mahmoud Salem replied: “…But we don’t even mourn our dead anymore. We immediately turn them into avatars, flyers and graffiti supporting our cause.”

The appropriation of the memories of the martyrs by the state and various political groups posits them as objects of history rather than subjects. The agency they had in life to choose a particular path or affiliate themselves with a cause or ideology is taken from them. Not only are the circumstances of their deaths mediated and mythologised, but their lived experiences are also altered to suit the present moment.

*Death toll available (According to a 30-page report produced collaboratively by a number of Human Rights organizations, launched during a Press conference on January 4)  — 1075 during 18 days of January 25 uprising under Mubarak, 438 under SCAF tenure post-Mubarak, 470 during Morsi’s year in power, and 2665 post-Morsi, with the official toll for the months of July and August 2013 being 976, according to the Forensics Authority.


You have a right to access accurate information, be stimulated by innovative and nuanced reporting, and be moved by compelling storytelling.

Subscribe now to become part of the growing community of members who help us maintain our editorial independence.
Know more

Join us

Your support is the only way to ensure independent,
progressive journalism