I don’t know if this is the right time to publish such a post, or if there’ll ever be a right time, but my thoughts have become too big and too muddled for my head, especially after Saturday’s events, and they’re screaming to get out. If you’re not sure what I am talking about, let me bring you up to speed.
On January 24, 2015 — a day before the 4th anniversary of the January 25th Egyptian revolution — a number of activists from the Socialist Popular Alliance group held a peaceful stand to commemorate the martyrs of the January 25th revolution near Tahrir Square. One of those activists was Shaimaa El-Sabagh. Shortly after, the stand was attacked by security forces who fired at the crowd. Shaimaa was one of those hit. She died in the arms of a colleague, who tried to rush her to safety as the security forces continued to fire at the activists.
Within minutes of news and images coming out, details of this heinous attack were shared far and wide by activists, journalists and citizens. Almost everyone was unanimous, and rightly so, in their condemnation of Egypt’s repressive police. The name ‘Shaimaa Sabagh’ became a trending topic across Egyptian social media and several articles on the incident were published by many prominent news outlets.
Only a day before, Egyptian student Sondos Abu Bakr was killed, in a nearly identical manner to Shaimaa, after security forces started shooting at a demonstration she was attending in the city of Alexandria. Sondos was only 17.
The weapon and method used to kill both women was the same, and so were the culprits yet the coverage of both incidents could not have been more different. The killing of Sondos, once confirmed, received little to no coverage, whether on social media or on news outlets. There were no condemnations or special tributes, no major articles or investigations. I can’t help but think, had Sondos been protesting under a different (read “liberal”) banner, her death would have received more sympathy and certainly more coverage. It’s true that that the killing of Shaimaa was more well-documented than that of Sondos, and it’s also true that it took place in an area and time of great significance to the Egyptian revolution… but does that really justify the disparity in coverage?
I am not here to “compare” deaths or claim that the killing of one was more outrageous than the other. That would frankly be quite repulsive and counter-productive. I am simply trying to point out the sheer hypocrisy in our principles and stances that deem some lives more worthy of mourning than others. The fact of the matter is that the majority of people only started caring about the death of “Islamist” Sondos when it was linked to the death of “liberal” Shaimaa. Sondos was just an afterthought.
These reductionist labels are not what I would use to describe these courageous women and if it were up to me, I would get rid of them all together but it is these very same labels that, depending on the person’s affiliation, are automatically stamped next to the names of those who are detained, tortured or killed in Egypt. Had it been under different circumstances, perhaps this small detail would not have mattered but alas, the events taking place in Egypt today do not exist in a vacuum. All the connotations associated with both labels are immediately attributed to the individual in question so that the issue is no longer about the injustice suffered but rather how compatible a certain set of views is with our own and whether the person who holds those views is worthy of our sympathy or not as a result. These labels have also been used as a sort of benchmark by many, consciously or unconsciously, to gauge the amount of attention and support they should give to a particular individual or cause with the underlying message being this: if they’re an ‘Islamist’, it doesn’t matter but if they’re a ‘liberal’ it does. The term ‘Islamist’ has also been used as a tool to diss and dismiss the activism of certain groups in relation to others, with the term often being used to paint a wide swath of opposition groups with the same brush. There’s no malicious intent or grand conspiracy behind this, of that I am sure. But the level at which we have internalised these labels and they way in which we project this in our activism and general discourse is disturbing, to say the least.
Last year whilst researching a number of Human Rights violations in Egypt, I came across one particularly significant case of minors being tortured in detention, which I was told needed urgent attention. I called the parents of the detained children, some of them as young as 14, to get more details and I was pelted with one harrowing story after another. Many of the children had been verbally and physically abused, beaten by the prison guards and made to share cells with adults. They had food and water taken away from them and their personal items were confiscated. One of the children had allegedly been raped but was threatened that, should he speak out, he would be raped again. His father denied this when I asked him, but all the other parents told me that he was staying silent to protect his son.
The parents of the children had been trying desperately to get some coverage of these violations. They didn’t understand why no one seemed to care and I didn’t either. That is, until I contacted a number of Human Rights organisations and media outlets to ask them to report on this case. They all showed interest to begin with, asking for more information, but then they would ask about the background of the parents and their political affiliations, completely forgetting about the children who had been tortured. Once the answer came back as Muslim Brotherhood, they all seemed to lose interest and their correspondences would eventually stop. The detention, torture or death of Islamists was old news to them. In fact, violence against Islamists has become so normalised that it no longer registers when we hear about it. This means that at least 1000 Islamist protesters have to be killed before anyone takes notice. It also means that the Egyptian regime can go on repressing and killing those Islamists without anyone challenging them or holding them to account for their crimes.
This selective outrage/activism, whether it be in favour of ‘Islamists’ or ‘Liberals’, needs to stop and it needs to stop now. I could go on giving countless other examples but it won’t change anything, unless we really start questioning our values and stop disdain and contempt from hardening our hearts and clouding our judgements. The bullets of our common enemy and the cells of our oppressor don’t distinguish between 6 April, MB, RevSoc, Salafi etc. We create those differences and distinctions ourselves, but we are also capable of dismantling them and we have to begin that process soon, before it’s too late.
“First they came for the Islamists…”
Written by Fatima Said
I think a major contributor to the virality of the news of Shaimaa’s death was that photograph. For me it stands out as a uniquely beautiful and shocking image, and it was evidently a powerful meme.
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