Three years have passed since the Maspero massacre took place.
On October 9, 2011, security forces killed 25 Coptic protesters in front of the state-run television building.
A military court sentenced three soldiers to prison terms of two to three years on charges of manslaughter and “neglect,” because their military vehicles plowed over and killed protesters as they marched. A civilian court sentenced two Coptic activists to three years in prison for stealing arms from the military vehicles.
Three years later, the official narrative of the massacre holds an unknown party responsible for shooting the protesters, while the families of killed Coptic protesters and fellow activists hold the military responsible.
On the occasion of the third anniversary of the Maspero massacre, we republish activist Alaa Abd El Fattah’s article that was originally published on October 20, 2011, in the privately owned newspaper Al-Shorouk.
A couple days spent at the morgue. A couple days amid the corpses of those struggling to preserve their martyr status, fighting against former President Hosni Mubarak’s regime in its entirety — not just against Mubarak’s military, which ran them over; not just against Mubarak’s media machine, which denied them the honor of martyrdom and turned them into mere killers; and not just against Mubarak’s judicial system, which denied them their rights.
These corpses are fighting to preserve the glory of their martyrdom in the gloomy morgue of a poor government hospital. They are fighting against the insanities of the Mubarak era claiming that an autopsy would harm the sanctity of the deceased and won’t bring them the triumph they deserve. They are fighting against the domination of the sultan’s theologians and priests who want us to believe that those seeking justice in this life are abandoning their right to justice in the afterlife. They are fighting against Mubarak’s politics of division, which made the poor believe their enemies lie among the poor, thus turning their attention away from those embezzling their daily bread.
A couple days spent with merciful death and merciless shame. My God, why do most of our martyrs belong to the poor? How were they discerned by the tank and the gun? Don’t we all bear the same blood and lie in the same grave? Still, it seems we have let the martyrs down, over and over again.
Our Egypt is incredible. It only picks the best of us. Meena Daniel was its right choice. It was him who sealed our triumph in the morgue.
Blessed are the meek
They came to the hospital by the hundreds, searching for wounded bodies to treat and murdered bodies to bury. They came searching for a shelter from the night that embodied all their fears. They came searching for anyone willing to share their anger and seeking strength in numbers. They came as the “church’s flock.” The hospital was surrounded by plainclothes assailants (perhaps these are the honest citizens cheered day and night by Mubarak’s military?), backed by the defenders of our security and revolution, seeking to assure these people that their only hope is to belong to the church’s flock.
We came looking for our friend from the square, the guy with the charming smile, Mina, who belongs to us and to whom we belong. Martyrdom chose Mina as he belongs to the church’s flock as much as to the revolution. These were the words of his family members who insisted on involving his buddies in every decision — we are his buddies after all. Mina struggled from his afterlife hoping we’d be accepted by the families of the martyrs, making us a group of comrades in the same struggle. We all bleed and weep the same, don’t we? Just as the truth — hushed on television stations — kept sprinkling out of the tears of the mothers of martyrs, it shows in our tears. They understood we were Mina’s buddies; that was enough for them to forget to ask our names in their usual suspicious manner.
So the hospital issued its report on the Maspero incident: Did they die of cardiac arrest, or was there a fight? The priests came forward with their advice: Let’s bury them quickly as it’s hot outside and there is no refrigeration in the morgue. This is where we intervened, strong with the arrogance and naïveté of our revolt: What about justice? What about punishment? This is our last chance to uncover the criminals; we need the forensic report.
How insane this was of us! Do we really mean to ask for an autopsy in our quest for justice we have never seen before, not even once? Not even by coincidence? What justice are we seeking, we, the poor? What justice are we seeking, we, the Copts? What justice are we seeking from the criminals ruling us? Don’t you understand that we’re vulnerable?
Still, Mina was one of us. His sister was the first to agree to an autopsy and this was enough to convince others, one after another. They were reluctant and we were insistent. Lawyers encouraged us amidst hours of weeping, hugs and debates. We were running against the clock, bringing every ice cube and every miserable fan we could find, hoping that our affection would be enough to maintain the purity of the bodies.
The next morning, the prosecutors arrived to find half of the families demanding an autopsy. This is when the noble judge issued his rule: I could either issue burial permits or forensic requests, aren’t we all equal in death? Of course, the priests were here to spice up the atmosphere: Our monsignor will celebrate the mass for their companions in a short while, so you’d better hurry before it’s too late. Have mercy on your children, their reward in paradise is grand.
We stood unified in our fight against the regime. This time, however, the battlefield has changed. This time, it’s about reason, logic and compassion. We made it in defeating the regime which faced our resolute rows of anger, bricks and solidarity. This time, however, we needed to lead a long debate before the prosecutor agreed to an autopsy for all the corpses … provided that we take charge of the forensic work.
What a sad truth this is turning to be! We had, first, to manage the security of our demonstrations. Next, things evolved and we had to ensure the smooth running of public facilities. Now, we have the duty of ensuring the work of public servants, on behalf of the government! Why, thus, would we bother to ask the police and the army to do their job? After all, it shows clearly on the corpses of our martyrs.
We had the families understand that the autopsy is a lengthy procedure. Thus, it was wise to move the corpses to the Zeinhom morgue where the services are convenient. Fear invaded the place again; it’s true that Mina made them believe in our country, still, rumors never stopped spreading while the gangs of “gentlemen” standing outside kept on terrorizing the crowds all night long. While we didn’t admit it openly, we got the message: We won’t leave the Coptic neighborhood because God knows what evil awaits us over there.
So we had to secure the hospital. We had to ensure appropriate working conditions for the forensic team. We had to evacuate thousands of scared souls from the building and control the reactions of thousands of angry people. There were just a handful of us to manage this whole procedure. Ironically, we had to assume the role of the Central Security Forces too. It seems we have a new battlefield to take over with our only weapon being our solidarity.
The forensic team started its mission, guarded by us and supervised by our lawyers and doctors, our unseen soldiers who experienced all kinds of injustice and who knew how to unveil evidence of murder, torture, crimes and massacres much better than forensic experts. The team began its work while we were frightened by the idea of letting a family member see the infuriating scene of a scalpel cutting through the corpse of a dear son. We were frightened by the idea of seeing our ranks crumble in the face of the “gentlemen” attacks or the outrage of the bereaved.
My kingdom is not of this world
It is true that the unity of our ranks worries all those opportunists; the traders of the cause being the most treacherous of them all. They are everywhere around us: Do you really trust this lawyer? She’s so young and unproven … I have much broader experience, and who are these? All of these are Muslims! How could you trust them? You have warned us for months, dear Mina, when you said it is crucial that Maspero joins forces with Tahrir Square. It is crucial that the demands of the Copts remain the demands of the people and vice-versa. The choice is so hard, dear Mina. While the oppressive authorities are hitting indiscriminately, these opportunists know well how to hit where it hurts most. So we spent the rest of the day fighting their deceitful rumors and fake accusations. Our goal was to return confidence and tranquility to the souls of our people.
In the beginning, we assumed a role we thought was similar to that of the Central Security Forces. We soon realized how both roles were so different. I will never understand how security forces anywhere in this world could believe that violence is the way to bring discipline back into masses of angry or scared citizens. I also wonder who recommended to the world’s governments that using guns and bullets in the face of the masses would deter them. The only thing we thought of as a weapon in front of the waves of anger surrounding us was our chests. We threw ourselves in front of the crowds and we cried for our martyrs. This is how we were able to drive out the delusions of a sectarian military reality and to spread the truthful dream of a free Egypt.
Dear Mina, our revolution is so fragile! Any stray bullet could topple it. Dear Mina, our revolution is so strong! One powerful soul would suffice to save it. Dear Mina, you made me grasp the teachings of the prophets. When will the military do the same? As soon as the forensic team started its work, complaints started on the lack of means, on the poor circumstances and on the nuisance of the surrounding guards. Still, the team had to accomplish its mission. When it was known that the team is almost done with the autopsy and is about to put up its report on the causes of death, someone began spreading rumors of false reports being prepared. Since the cause of death could refer to a single mortal wound, while the corpses are filled with scores of them, this was enough for the families of the martyrs to believe what they heard, and it was enough for the waiting crowds to burst in outrage. This was also enough to cause our ranks to collapse.
On the brink of victory, we found ourselves facing the toughest ordeal. The families believed in the dream of justice; they let us dissect the corpses of their sons while they delayed the funeral mass that was to be celebrated by the monsignor, which led in turn to another night’s delay of the burial. They made all the sacrifices we asked of them despite their initial reluctance. Now, they demand assurances; they want to experience the justice they are after. In return, all we had for them was a bunch of incomprehensible technical and legal stuff. Indeed, why does the report say run over by a “heavy vehicle” when the truth is clear and we all know it was an armored tank? Why doesn’t it say it was an armored tank? Why is there a mention of fiery projectiles? Why is there no mention of “security service bullets”? Haven’t we been promised justice? Why can’t we read the name of the criminal who is known to all of us?
I didn’t grasp the victory we achieved while we were inundated by tons of details. At one moment in time, I looked around and saw that our unified ranks gained the sympathy of the hospital staff, the doctors and the priests! What have you done, dear Mina? Is it the vulnerability of our families that awakened their conscience, or is it your strength that burst out their imagination? Did we really succeed in overcoming all these obstacles in just a few hours? I can claim that even the forensic doctors joined our ranks too. The only solution was to sit with each family, explain the causes of death and point out the details that will be shown in the forensic report. That’s in addition to explaining the role of the prosecutor and lawyers. Our unity was contagious enough to attract the forensic doctor who forgot he was just a public servant and who made himself our judicial representative. When he sat with the families and explained the content of the reports, something he was only used to doing with the powerful class, he may have remembered that justice is always by the side of the vulnerable. I saw them describe the features of the martyrs to their families, a way to make them believe that they are not just corpses and to prove that they know them and care for their memory. I finally witnessed the dream, for which you reached martyrdom turn into reality, even for a short moment.
On our way to the church, our victory was total. None bothered to check who carried the martyrs and who led the acclaim. Was it a Muslim who was shouting “We either bring them justice or we die like them”? What a silly question. Don’t we all have the same blood and cry out the same tears?
Turn the other cheek
Before moving to the Coptic hospital, we were in another hospital, away from the battle scene, waiting for the X-ray of Ahmed’s foot, injured by a live bullet.
We picked up Ahmed from Talaat Harb Street while he was trying to save his homeland by joining his companions gathered in the Tahrir Square. The fall of our martyrs had happened just a few hours earlier. Our youth did not bother to have a count and see which group outnumbers the other. They did not think about what action to take in the face of the “unarmed” forces (according to the press conference) showering them with bullets.
They were only worried about the gravity of events that might follow if they left the square to the demonstration of mercenaries shouting “Islamic! Islamic!”… A demonstration organized with the blessing of the army and the police. We all knew it was a fabricated demonstration, an attempt to bring a civilian touch to a military-driven massacre, thus directing the blame toward the Salafis.
We saw in Ahmed a mythical hero when he resisted his friends and refused to be hospitalized claiming that his wound is superficial and is just an impact of a tiny projectile. Still, we managed to convince him and take him away on our shoulders. On our way by taxi to a private hospital, away from the scene of the events, he told us how he was arrested and tortured by the “honest” military and how he was allowed a “fair” trial in a military tribunal. He told us how he got shot during the Abbasseya battle of treachery. His injuries did not prevent him from rejoining his companions who were facing the horror of live bullets.
Once at the hospital, and after we confirmed he was hit by live bullets and not just tiny projectiles, we were visited by a police investigator. Ahmed’s resolution was impressive, replying cold-bloodedly and defiantly to the officer’s questions. He impressed us further when he showed his disgust following the officer’s asking his name: “So you’re a Muslim”… Would he have refused his release from the hospital if he were a Christian? The only moment during which Ahmed showed his vulnerability, just like ours, was when he cried while the doctor was sterilizing his wound. We hadn’t noticed his young age until he replied with fear to his mother calling him on his mobile: “Maspero? What do I have to do with that, Mum? I’m hanging out with my friends.”
Does Major General Hamdy Badeen realize that some of us fear our loving mothers more than they fear bullets and tanks? Did the marshal hear us shout “Oh marshal, Oh marshal, here comes another bridegroom from Tahrir,” while taking Mina on his last visit to the square? Does anyone of the military realize the deep meaning out of seeing the mother of Khaled Saeed visiting the mother of Mina Daniel? Or did they forget the value of blood, tears, hugs and dreams? They no longer have a place amongst us, but we are more tolerant toward those who let us down in the beginning.
The English translation of this article was originally published on The Arabist.