For the past 18 months, Egyptians have been struggling to follow up with the constantly shifting developments in the political sphere. Developments seem to not only play with the existing balance of power, but rather with our own perceptions of what constitutes reality. It almost feels like we are under constant pressure to recollect, organize and reflect on the memories of the events of our enduring revolution, before they fade away, or even worse — are replaced.
In Ted Swedenburg’s attempt to trace how Palestinians remember the Great Arab Revolt of 1936–1939, he details the struggle of remembering an important portion of a nation’s collective memory amid fierce attempts to tamper with, discredit and marginalize this part in history.
Accordingly, traces left behind by Arab Mujahideen (freedom fighters) are eradicated, villages are turned into modern cities with Hebrew street names, tombs of activists — once visited by Palestinians to honor the history of their struggle — transform into spacious gardens with trees constructed to remember the victims of the Holocaust. Even books and personal writings kept by older generations to remember their struggle against occupation are confiscated during house raids and their owners punished. Mujahideen become terrorists, the Keffeya reflects agitation, and the Nakba (the memory of 1948) stands against Israel’s birthday. Home turns into a key kept by an extended family in the diaspora, and most importantly — the collective memory of people who once constituted a nation comes to be doubted. The struggle for survival, recognition and power is determined by whoever has the upper hand over history.
The squares and streets of Egypt on 11 February 2011, where millions celebrated Mubarak’s ousting, brings back the feeling that our dreams for a nation, which we aspire to share, will be fulfilled when we finally get to choose our president. A little over a year later, the results of presidential elections are announced; worries and uncertainty trump celebrations in the streets, as the latter fades away gradually and is replaced by alleged conspiracy theories to rig elections results.
In Egypt, Friday marches have become customary in the last year and a half. First to celebrate the military, then to oust Mubarak’s prime minister, to demand the trial of perpetrators of human rights violations, to protest killing revolutionaries, and finally — to stand against a nearly-realized military coup. Consequently, our perception of what once united us becomes hazy. Our certainty in our collective memories of the revolution gets tampered with. We simply wanted democracy, but going to the ballots to cast our votes have become like an almost systematic activity. Words like “liberal,” “progressive” and “social equality” are heavily introduced to our daily language, but with different connotations to what we initially thought they would mean.
Even recollecting our feeling from a few months ago has become quite confusing. Gradually, we are being told that the capacity of Tahrir Square cannot hold millions; it barely has room for thousands of protesters. Police officers we saw kill our comrades in the streets are acquitted in trials for lack of evidence, following hours and hours of investigation, hearings and testimonies. Even worse, judgments alluding to their killers coming from groups within the protesters begin to be issued, and adopted slowly into the state and public narratives.
Shadows of doubt loom over the intentions and realities of those who died — questions arise over who constitutes a revolutionary, or “an honorable youth of the 25 January revolution.” A junta definition of the youth of the revolution does not include a female protester undergoing a forced virginity test, or another one unclothed in the street. It does not include a football fan who uses obscene language to chant for freedom, or an underdressed, lower-class Egyptian who can pass as a street child or a thug. It certainly does not also include an angry Copt run over by army tanks for demanding his rights. Those definitions become a lot more powerful as popularly elected Islamists in the now-dissolved post-revolution People's Assembly continue to frantically echo them.
After over 60 years of trying to squash Palestinian history, Palestinians remain among the largest populations conducting documentation projects to preserve their national narrative — their own version of the story. Refugee camps are filled with young Palestinians involved in filming older generations as they speak about the Nakba. Parents spend hours speaking about their homeland to their anxious children, while the Keffeya remains a symbol of resistance.
Equally, the oppressor remains terrified. Mahmoud Sarsak, Palestine’s longest hunger striker in Israeli jails, recently struck a deal to be released in a couple of weeks. The entire Israeli machinery of oppression decided to end the three-year captivity of Sarsak because he decided not to eat. His feeble body is now glorified all over Palestine, as he ceases to be a mere mortal and starts symbolizing a collective dream. A Palestinian activist wrote to Mahmoud: “Oh Mahmoud, we still have a song. Rise up and sing it. I fear that glory might take you away from us and I lose my last voice in [the song].”
Another Mahmoud is my 14-year-old friend, who I met after he was shot in the leg by the army during the December clashes in downtown Cairo. He recently buried two of his close “midan” friends whom he met in Tahrir Square and who died in the Abbasseya clashes in May. His memory is intact. The look in his eyes when he speaks about his friends and the determination he has to bring justice to them will never fail. There are millions like him, who appear suddenly every time one is fooled into thinking that the oppressor has dominated our nation’s history making. The memories of those millions also remain intact, and the realities they have been through appear to be unearthed from underneath alternative and confusing scenarios forcing their way into their minds.
Just like graffiti artists repainting their stories of the revolution on the “separation walls” built around protests sites in Cairo, whenever they are painted over by SCAF. The same determination to win the battle over space, whether it is a girl overcoming fears she developed in Tahrir after confronting death, a boy pasting a “No to Military Trials” sticker onto an electricity pole in an uninvolved suburb in Heliopolis, a veiled mother trying not to forget names and faces as she passes by Maspero, or a history teacher refusing to teach his students that the “military protected the revolution.”
Hope is never lost with the Mahmouds in this world. We want to romanticize our heroes and glorify their sacrifices, so they will grow in our memories to become giants and defeat bullets. Our role is to realize that their sacrifices are light years stronger than the mind games played on our memories to forget.
Sohair Riad is a researcher at the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS)