Who does the state officially mourn?
Prosecutor General Hesham Barakat's funeral - Courtesy: Military spokesperson's official Facebook page

Families have criticized the government’s delayed response to the sinking of a small cruise boat on the Nile after it collided with a barge near the Giza district of Warraq, resulting in the deaths of at least 35 people, including at least 16 children, attending an engagement party.

A similar official silence was notable after 21 military personnel were killed earlier this month in deadly attacks by the Province of Sinai militant group in Sheikh Zuwayed, North Sinai. State officials said there would be no period of national mourning until retribution was enacted for the slain soldiers.

However, just three days before Sheikh Zuwayed assaults, the state declared an official three-day mourning period to mark the assassination of Prosecutor General Hesham Barakat.

A declaration of national mourning in Egypt usually means that all state institutions, including embassies and consulates abroad, fly the flag at half-mast, while state television channels broadcast with a black mourning sign on the screen. Such decisions are usually decreed by the president and announced in the Official Gazette.

There doesn’t appear to be a clear pattern, however, for what kind of tragedies the state marks with national mourning. For example, not all incidents in which military personnel were killed in large numbers have been publicly mourned, nor are mourning periods consistently decreed for the deaths of public figures or high-fatality accidents.

Death has always been used politically to defend or attack the state, and much has been written about the efficacy of dead bodies in quests for political gain. Anthropologist Katherine Verdery suggests the symbolic capital of death is based on a number of factors, including the ambiguity of the context, the capacity of the incident to trigger emotional response and the precarity of the political moment, in terms of the degree of polarization or need for nation-building at the time.

Given the state’s erratic response to these recent incidents, Mada Masr has compiled a list of some of the events that the government either did or did not commemorate publicly in order to see if a coherent logic would coalesce.

Politically ambiguous incidents

The bitter memory of the burning of Beni Suef Cultural Center in September 2005, which left 50 dead and 20 injured, is still strong in the hearts and minds of many, but went unmarked by former President Hosni Mubarak’s government. His administration was strongly condemned for not commemorating the victims, and those responsible for the fire were never convicted.

When 70 football fans were killed in the Port Said Stadium massacre in February 2012, the state declared a period of official mourning. A similar incident in front of the Air Defence Stadium in February 2015 was, however, only officially mourned by the Football Union and Al-Ahly club. The 2015 violence left at least 22 Zamalek Club fans dead following clashes with police. The prosecution was quick to accuse the Muslim Brotherhood of coordinating with the football fans to provoke instability and chaos, which could be a possible pretext for the absence of national mourning in this instance.

Fatal ‘accidents’

Egyptians were celebrating their triumph at the African Cup in February 2006 when the Salam ferry sunk in the Red Sea. Mubarak and his family were marking the football win at Cairo Stadium, which is believed to be the reason why he and his government “forgot” to declare a period of national mourning for the 1,400 victims of this unfortunate incident. Charges of involuntary manslaughter against ferry owner and Mubarak-linked businessman Mamdouh Ismail were dropped. Nine years later, the question of why the victims were never officially mourned remains unanswered.

No state of mourning was declared for the 52 children who died in a train crash in Assiut in November 2012 during Mohamed Morsi’s short-lived presidency, although state-owned and privately owned television channels did so independently in protest against the state’s reluctance. Private media channels were largely opposed to Morsi’s government at the time.

No official period of mourning was instituted when a military train transporting soldiers on vacation to Upper Egypt crashed in Badrashin in January 2013, killing 19 people and injuring at least 120, mostly Armed Forces personnel. Morsi visited victims of the crash and vowed to hold those responsible to account, but he was put in the hot seat once again as critics blamed the government for this tragic incident and slammed the absence of official mourning.

The state did declare a period of official mourning, however, for a train crash in Dahshour in November 2013 that killed 27 people, a few months after Morsi’s ouster.

Security personnel

A major attack on a Rafah checkpoint in August 2012, which left 14 soldiers dead, was officially mourned, as was an attack on the same checkpoint shortly after Morsi’s ouster in August 2013, which left 25 dead.

A period of national mourning was declared following the bombing of the Daqahlia Security Directorate in December 2013, which killed 14 people. In contrast, no period of national mourning was declared after the bombing of the Cairo Security Directorate in January 2014, which left four dead and over 70 injured.

An assault on the Farafra checkpoint in July 2014, which killed 21 people, also prompted an official period of mourning.

The bombing of the Karm al-Qawadees checkpoint in October 2014 that left 31 security personnel dead was officially mourned.

A period of mourning was declared when 10 soldiers were killed in Sheikh Zuwayed in November 2014.

State figures

Pope Shenouda’s death in March 2012 was officially mourned by the state.

A three-day period of mourning was declared when National Security officer Mohamed Mabrouk was assassinated in November 2014. Prior to his death, Mabrouk was a leading investigator in the case accusing Morsi and other Muslim Brotherhood leaders of breaking out of Wadi al-Natroun Prison in 2011, which some speculate is why mourning was declared after his death. Officials did not do the same to honor the assassinations of the slain officer’s colleagues, Wael Tahoun, Mohamed Abou Shakra, Mohamed al-Saeed, Ahmed Zaki and Tarek al-Mergawy, who all died under similar circumstances over the past two and a half years.

Despite calls by members of the judiciary, there was no official mourning for the three judges who were assassinated in Arish in May 2015 by Province of Sinai militants. Consequently, the Judges Club and courts nationwide mourned their deaths independently.

Cultural figures

The death of renowned Egyptian actress and icon Faten Hamama was officially marked by the state, but not that of her former husband and renowned Hollywood star Omar Sharif, who passed away a few months later in July 2015. Sharif’s funeral was attended by relatively few state officials.

Heads of state

International precedents or competition to show respect to certain world leaders depending on global politics also seems to play a role in determining official declarations of mourning.

Interim President Adly Mansour declared a period of official mourning in December 2013 following the death of former South African President Nelson Mandela.

Following the death of former Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdel Aziz, the state declared a week of national mourning in January 2015. Jordan and many other Arab countries declared official mourning periods of 40 days. Celebrations for the January 25 revolution anniversary were cancelled following Abdullah’s death.

Sectarian violence

The state declared a period of official national mourning for 21 Coptic Egyptians decapitated by Islamic State forces in Libya. The workers had been kidnapped for months in the troubled North African country before the Islamic State published a video showing their beheading. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi immediately launched a military air strike against Islamic State strongholds in Libya — an unprecedented act of retribution. Declaring a national mourning period could therefore be seen as playing into the anti-terror campaign staged by the government since 2013.

However, a drive-by shooting at a church in Warraq in October 2013 that killed four people was only condemned publicly by then-Prime Minister Hazem al-Beblawy, and otherwise passed without official commemoration. The attack came two months after the deadly dispersal of two pro-Muslim Brotherhood protest camps in Cairo.  The dispersal was followed by a wave of sectarian attacks against Copts.

What does mourning mean?

In the absence of a clear pattern behind the state’s decrees of mourning, a more pertinent question might be whether or not “national mourning” is a meaningful expression of grief, in the first place — and if so, who is it for?

In such instances, the state dictates how people should mourn and for how long. Professor Jill Scott from Queen’s University, Ontario suggests national mourning can be used to turn grief to anger, and anger to resolution. In the cases cited above, it is perhaps interesting to look at when certain individuals have utility for the state in terms of supporting pre-existing narratives — for example, regarding terrorism or state negligence — when considering why some deaths are mourned publicaly, and others are not. 

Mai Shams El-Din 

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