Death is the carbon paper on which the events of the past three years were etched, the constant uninvited guest, the lingering shadow.
From the very beginning, from the moment men filed out of mosques on January 28, 2011 and put on their shoes in preparation for those long, or sometimes brutally cut short, marches, it was clear that this time it was different; this time the state would really take its gloves off. It hasn’t put them back on since.
My first experience of the violence I had only so far seen on television was in Ramses Square on that Friday, when I saw a man outside the Azbakeyya police station shot, suddenly drop to the ground backwards like a tumbling domino as the square itself descended into that hell of racing, maddened armored police cars and fizzing tear gas and hungry bullets that would later become an everyday scene.
The day of the Camel Battle was our first taste of civilian on civilian violence, and the particular awfulness of that. How absurd, to storm a square mounted on animals, to throw rocks for hours on end, to kill a fellow citizen so crudely when the state would go on to do it far more efficiently later on.
The state killing machine began in earnest in April 2011 and has shaped the course of events as much as the politics that went on at the same time. The army and Ministry of Interior have an inexhaustible supply of guns and ammunition, and the public a never ending stream of young people willing to be their targets. Death was the star at Mohamed Mahmoud and its stage was that dark, unearthly street, the mosque turned into a field hospital, the sticky blood clutching at our shoes, the frantic gloved hands trying to fix the bodies, the souls departing them.
It was war meets pageantry; the gentleman officer hunting eyes, his subordinates offering praise and encouragement (gada3 ya basha) while on the other side protesters stood arms outstretched, played cat and mouse, returned teargas canisters to sender.
Dead protesters are viewed as martyrs but death has become too easy and lives too cheap, names on a spreadsheet. Death was everywhere and yet so remote. Gradually, clashes, and death during clashes, have become just another everyday reality. In Egypt people die anonymously in car crashes and on sinking ferries and in universities and in protests, that’s just the way it is.
Three years later the life of the average Egyptian citizen is even cheaper than it already was. People have been dispatched in a myriad ways; under the wheels of furious, raging army vehicles, trapped in football stadiums or prison vans, burnt to death in tents, thrown off buildings, shot at funerals, lynched. And they continue to be killed deliberately in police stations and by careless mistake in hospitals and nobody cares, because the story is old and in order to care you have to be prepared to engage in battle once again, in a fight you thought might end in 2011, and to engage in any case is to admit that the battle has been lost.
I have been lucky and have only had two brushes with death in the past three years. The first at Maspero in October 2011 and the second during the clashes of December of that year, when the security forces elected to launch missiles (bits of furniture, stones, panes of glass) at us from the roof of the Cabinet building. For a moment I forgot to keep looking up and a rock, a bit of concrete, hit me just below my breastbone, missing my head by centimeters. The impact was such that I momentarily thought I had been shot.
The death on Wednesday of Bassem Sabry hit me with the same force. He is someone I met briefly only two or three times. Our interactions were more online. To my great amazement he once, in May 2012, asked me for my thoughts for an article he was writing on what went wrong in Egypt, ignoring the fact that in political analysis terms he is (was) Mozart and I am Justin Bieber. You can read about what an exceptional person he was in the numerous tributes to him written since he died, I don’t need to repeat them other than to say that his life and death are important to me personally for two reasons.
Bassem was one of a handful of people who I associate with the January 25 revolution because of his writing and passion for its cause. Fittingly, the end of his life coincides with the final death throes of that uprising: when Bassem was buried he took the promise of a dream with him. Sitting in the mosque on Thursday waiting for his funeral (which was eventually delayed) I remembered the Keizer graffiti whose English translation is, remember tomorrow that never came?
Secondly, his death is personal, important, devastating, even for those who never met him. Egypt has become inured to death to such an extent that when hundreds of people were killed in less than 10 hours on August 14 2013 it caused barely a ripple; these were strangers intent on no good, after all.
But death is not a hitman for hire, and the dead can’t keep score. A person is most vulnerable when they stop caring, stop looking, when they forget the lesson of the past three years; death is everywhere, and to ignore it, or delight in it, is to do so at one’s own risk. Bassem’s untimely death re-awoke some part of our collective conscience that had been switched off, particularly in the past year. He reminded us that to belittle death is to belittle life because they are one continuum, and that the moment when death stops being a tragedy is when life becomes one.