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Cairo, massacres and our history

On New Year’s Eve 11 years ago, Egyptian police killed 27 Sudanese refugees and injured dozens of others in Cairo’s upper-middle-class neighborhood of Mohandiseen. Security forces were dispersing a peaceful sit-in by asylum seekers escaping the atrocities of civil war.

Only a few people still remember that midnight crime in Cairo. The killed have been forgotten, the massacre erased from our memory. Though it may resurface from time to time in the memories of eyewitnesses, and will definitely continue to be remembered by refugees who shared the tragedy, it has been erased from our collective memory, and hence from history.

The Mostafa Mahmoud refugee massacre gave us a glimpse into the ability of Cairo to smoothly coexist with unjustly spilled blood. Our city managed to coexist with murder because it is a racist city. If it weren’t for hatred, the massacre would not have been forgotten.

This points to a particular field of consciousness. As a negation of existence, murder begins with contempt at the level of consciousness. This is exactly what happened with the bereaved asylum seekers, whom the residents of Mohandiseen considered as dirt that deserved to die, without any conscious regret.

The massacre of the refugees has taught us that a successful massacre is not one where the killing is carried out with efficiency, but one where the perpetrators succeed in depriving their victims of the right to exist. Like the massacres of the revolution, this was the subject of a moral controversy: the right to existence for the victims was shrouded in doubt. It became a fight of consciousness and narrative, a fight of interpretation and the right to speak on behalf of history, just like the struggle over power and wealth.

In Rabea al-Adaweya, within just a few hours and in broad daylight, Egyptian authorities killed close to 1000 individuals, burned the bodies of some of them, and reluctantly gave their families death certificates. Meanwhile, citizens, revolutionaries among them, debated the legitimacy of the bloodshed. The major tragedy concerning Rabea is not the killing itself, despite its horror and barbarism, but the manipulation of consciousness.

Just like the refugee massacre, in Rabea, the perpetrators succeeded, until now, in morally rationalizing the act of killing by denying victims their right to existence. But unlike the refugee massacre, Rabea is too big to be erased for several reasons, which will not be addressed here. Understanding Rabea is crucial as a foundational event in the history of Egyptian politics.

There are two competing narratives for modern Egypt forming a schism in Egyptian history: The modern narrative that advocated citizenship, fought colonialism and achieved independence, and the Islamic narrative of the Caliphate, which fell with the demise of the Ottoman Empire, submitting materially and spiritually to the faithless West, then witnessing an Islamic revival that struggled to reclaim the Mohammedan glory, etc.

The origin of that schism in historical consciousness goes back more than a century, with the birth of the modern nationalist movement, soon to be challenged in the public sphere with a revivalist Islamist current that is hateful of modernity, and terrified by the disintegration of relations and traditional values that inevitably come with modernization.

The split in consciousness resulting from modernity and its pains is not an Egyptian story, but a universal one, which has its different traces in different periods of time and places. When you read the Destruction of the Mind by Georg Lukacs, or the Philosophical Discourse of Modernity by Jürgen Habermas, and dozens of other writings documenting the development of the European modernist mind, you will discover that modern irrationality was the twin of bourgeois rationality, which failed to deliver the progress, freedom and justice it had promised. Rationality has become a rationalization of the misery of the present, and irrationality has become a revolutionary reaction, especially after the defeat of the radical revolution project, which called for reconciliation between reason and revolution. This is the point at which the West entered into an era of Fascism and Nazism and two world wars.

In backward, colonized Egypt, despite a movement for nationalist liberation, modern rationality was deployed as a compromise with colonialism, but failed to defeat it through its modes of appeasement and containment. Irrationality, both in thought and politics, erupted in the form of an attack on modernity, taking the shape of Islamic revival. Despite major changes in Egypt over the last century, it still did not surpass the split of narratives that characterized the birth of its early modernity. The cause is the essence of the crisis.

While the developed West managed after World War II, and until recently, to contain irrationality within the frame of traditional democratic negotiation, thanks to its long-term recovery and wealth accumulation, the Egyptian nationalist state failed miserably in its modernist project, falling short of achieving freedom, justice, democracy and progress. Egyptian nationalism succeeded in nothing but regulating the rate of cultural deterioration, preventing a complete failure of the state.

This is precisely the environment in which the Islamic revival reclaimed its vitality as a form of irrationality that stands in the face of the decadent rationality of the nationalist, liberation state. It is an irrationality that is at its best hesitant towards modernity and at its worst rejects it altogether. It is an irrationality that presents itself and is presented by the authorities, not as traditional opposition that moves within the context of rotation of power — where positions of power rotate between different parties and political forces through a unified political (constitutional) foundation — but rather as a more fundamental opposition, an opposition that seeks to build a new state on the ruins of the nationalist liberation state, at least with regards to its intellectual and moralistic tendencies.

This mutual negation between the nationalist and Islamic projects carries the ideological roots for the legitimization of the Rabea massacre. On one hand, the nationalist liberation state is no longer capable of resorting to populism in order to achieve integration and containment, after it lost its raison d’etre and became merely a group of thieves; it is no longer capable of exclusion on the basis of a collective social contract, but is only capable of creating illusionary enemies and fueling hatred. On the other hand, non-democratic Islamist projects are inherently non-inclusive. Hence, we have ended up with an environment conducive to a culture of negation and counter negation. It is an environment that would flare up with the first spark of a crisis and this is what happened.

It is exactly here that the counter-revolution found its opportunity. The counter-revolution as an opportunistic mass poses in Islamist or secular forms when either seems suitable. Meanwhile, this deeply rooted and long-term intellectual division constituted a historical opportunity to facilitate attack. There is an “other,” an opposing “other,” an “other” that we perceive as different and it perceives us as different, an “other” who we can dress in the devil’s mask, incite hatred against as an enemy, and erase from existence.

This is the fertile intellectual ground that contributed to exclusion and demonization, and provided the counter-revolution with an opportunity to control minds with its narrative. This is how the road was paved for cheap murder, accompanied with jubilations and cheering for victory.

The Rabea martyrs are not only victims of the machine guns and cannons of the counter-revolution. They are also victims of the mutual negation between the two narratives of Egypt’s history. Even those from the civilian camp who acknowledge the martyrs of Rabea, base this acknowledgement on the elegant perspective of human rights. In their minds, they are not their martyrs, but those of the “other.” They are pitied because all is ill gotten.

But the trauma of Rabea will never heal unless it is drawn out of the circles of polarization and negation and rooted in humanitarian ground, even if this takes a confrontation with the Muslim Brotherhood, who consider that Rabea is their tragedy and no one else’s. This is not true. It is not the tragedy of this or that group. Rabea is the tragedy of the Egyptian revolution as a whole; not because the Rabea protesters were revolutionaries, but because the legitimization of the massacre solidifies the logic of exclusion and deepens the hegemony of the counter-revolution. It is a bomb that destroys the bridge towards the containment and political defeat of Islamist conservatism, through a radical democratic project. Rabea is a dramatic climax in the defeat of the Egyptian revolution, that changed the nature of the battle’s front lines from political and social to one that is identity and ideology based.

We shall not win when the confrontation breaks out again unless we reclaim its nature. The war is between the revolution and the counter-revolution. There are no devils among us, but people with power, property and wealth, opportunists and manipulators, all of whom deprive the toilers, the poor and the oppressed of their right to “bread, freedom and social justice.”


Translated by Aida Seif al-Dawla

Tamer Waguih