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Guarding sites of memory

In the run up to the first anniversary of the Rabea al-Adaweya and Nahda Square sit-in dispersals, human rights organizations, various political groups and the state entered another round of contesting the narrative of the deadly months that followed the deposition of former President Mohamed Morsi.

In an effort to support its story of a triumph against terrorism in Egypt and not, as Human Rights Watch recently suggested, “serious violations of human rights laws” and possibly even “crimes against humanity,” the government has gone all out to delegitimize those critical of the state’s use of violence — from locking up journalists to cracking down on human rights organizations, including, most recently, refusing entry to two senior Human Rights Watch officials at Cairo International Airport earlier this week.

The battle to silence narratives of what many in Egypt and internationally have referred to as a massacre on August 14, 2013, has been played out in a number of arenas over the last year.

But beyond those who witnessed Rabea, there is an indelibility of violence, as with other massacres such as Maspero and Mohamed Mahmoud, that is in some ways more deeply reinforced by aggressive or nervous attempts to erase it or ignore it.

Several Egyptian athletes were censured and suspended, including Ahly player Ahmed Abdel Zaher, who raised the Rabea (four finger) salute in solidarity with those who died, and Kung Fu champion Mohamed Youssef, who wore a Rabea t-shirt to receive a medal. Government representatives were sent to the United States and European countries that were critical of the dispersals and Morsi’s deposition, and a PR company was hired in the US — all in support of an Orwellian web of carefully constructed narratives.

This weekend, a year after the sit-ins were dispersed, several local newspapers supported the state-propagated story of events. A headline in the privately owned newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm on August 14 read, “After one year of freeing Rabea,” and Youm7 wrote, “So we don’t forget the crimes of Rabea and afterwards,” set against a picture of a burning police vehicle and the corpses of police officers from the attack on the Kerdasa police station. Although the rhetoric is influenced by the state, this is a perspective that many Egyptians share, praising security forces and the military for their role in saving the country.

In October 2013, the state invested LE90 million in renovating Rabea Square and mosque, which had been destroyed during the violent dispersal. The mosque was newly painted and a fountain memorial was constructed of two hands representing the military and police, enclosing a white orb — the people.

This isn’t the first time the state has appropriated sites of violent memory in this way. Erecting a monument in Tahrir Square days before the anniversary of the battle of Mohamed Mahmoud was an attempt to monopolize the commemoration of the martyrs. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces had demolished a popularly built memorial in 2012, saying it included the names of “thugs” and omitted those of the “true martyrs.” The state’s monument was defaced soon after it was inaugurated, but it was later rebuilt and cleaned up.

Similarly, a group of students — reportedly from the nearby Al-Azhar dormitories — torched the scaffolding around the Rabea monument in May 2014, chanting against military rule and now-President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, but they didn’t succeed in setting fire to the monument itself.

In this “war of symbols,” children posing for pictures in the homes of their dead relatives and posting them online speaks of an alternative kind of mourning that the state cannot control.

This battle over memory and space resonates with the work of Laleh Khalili, professor of Middle East politics and author of “Heroes and Martyrs of Palestine.”

She notes: “Spaces provide a stage for commemoration, but they can also act as mnemonic markers, sources of commemorative narratives and a focus of contention over meanings of history. Marshaling spaces in the service of commemoration, and building museums, monuments and memorials all require institutional resources.”

The guardianship of commemorative sites, silencing some narratives and promoting others, is reflective of power relations and the state’s attempts to control collective memory rather than allow for multiple memories, or even the development of discourse in a way it can’t control.

True, the state has money and institutional power, with which it is trying to shape popular memory of events, but I asked photojournalist Mosaab Elshamy — who documented the violent Rabea dispersal — what he thought of the state monument and how the families and friends of the martyrs are choosing to mourn the dead.

He spoke of telling stories and of the organic ways in which people have incorporated violent memory into their everyday lives. In this “war of symbols,” children posing for pictures in the homes of their dead relatives and posting them online speaks of an alternative kind of mourning that the state cannot control, he said.

Anthropologist Allen Feldman, author of “Political Terror and the Technologies of Memory,” writes about a history of violence in Northern Ireland: “Historical memory is a mass-produced commodity in Belfast’s political culture, written into the built environment — by place names, memorials, bullet pockmarks and home debris — into people’s choice of residence and spouse, into almost every calendrical observance and march.”

As we remember the violent events of last year, however we have framed them, and the state continues to perpetuate a certain version of events, the memories of violence are also built into the daily lives of those who witnessed and lived through them.

But beyond those who witnessed Rabea, there is an indelibility of violence, as with other massacres such as Maspero and Mohamed Mahmoud, that is in some ways more deeply reinforced by aggressive or nervous attempts to erase it or ignore it.

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