July 9, 2010


One man’s death, a nation’s awakening? (Amro Ali, 9 July 2010, Online Opinion)

In the aftermath of his death, Saeed was transformed into the unifying poster-child of Egypt's disparate reform movements, and has endowed the former United Nations nuclear chief and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Mohamed ElBaradei, with a springboard to run in next year’s presidential elections. Although his high profile visit to pay condolences to Saeed’s family and leading peaceful demonstrations was a feat in bolstering Egyptian hope for reform, it remains to be seen whether his words translate into political change.

The tragedy has exposed something bigger than Saeed. Under scrutiny are the loathed emergency laws that have been in place since the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in October 1981 - ironically, the eve of Saeed’s birth. These laws allow police to arrest and detain individuals without regard to the due process guaranteed under the criminal procedure code. Hence an ordinary citizen’s basic rights are restricted, police impunity becomes the norm, and a Saeed scenario is your outcome. It’s like the US PATRIOT Act on crack. Saeed has now been elevated to the status of the “emergency law martyr”. And now, Egypt’s security apparatus is showing signs of strain under the system it is supposed to uphold.

I’ve seen other signs of Egypt’s simmering frustration with its government. On a recent visit to Alexandria, I took the sentimental six-stop journey from Cleopatra Hammamat to see relatives in the suburb of Camp Chezar (Camp Caesar) where legend has it Julius Caesar first set up camp; Caesar’s despotism would eventually be his downfall.

The train sent me on a trajectory, back in time, through a land saturated in history, where the ruins of the past strangely reflect the narratives of the future. On this particular day, an old white-bearded man on board poignantly got up from his seat, gripping in his hand a copy of the Al-Ahram (The Pyramids) newspaper; its front cover displaying images of dead Palestinians from Israel’s occupation. Seemingly agitated by the newspaper’s images, he went on to openly denounce the Egyptian regime’s perceived complicity in Israel’s brutal occupation and the apathy of the Egyptian people before some 25 commuters. At one point, one of the passengers advised the old man to be quiet when a senior police officer boarded the train, yet the old man continued unrepentant. Many onboard came to his defence, with one man saying: “What is he saying that is wrong? He’s speaking the truth! Continue ya Hagg”, a title of respect given to those who have performed the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca.

By the time the train reached the fifth station, the ancient Jewish district of Al Ibrahimiyya (named after the Patriarch Abraham), the old man, with a Moses-like solemnity rallying the crowds to beseech a Pharaoh to let his people go, was fired up more than ever. All the while, the commuters rallied behind him as the impromptu mouthpiece, finally venting their collective frustration. The police officer, who had been up until then cowering in the corner of the carriage, not bothering with the whole episode, meekly disembarked (I suspect this was not even his intended destination). Even the security organs, the lynchpin of the regime, are being further blunted as the tide of nationwide exacerbation at authoritarian rule grows. It struck me that the public agitation on the train was a microcosm of a larger Egypt on a fault line, with an apathetic regime that is losing its sense of orientation.

This is not the first time the Egyptian people have balked against an administration’s brutality. Observers are comparing the incident to the Denshawai Affair of 1906, when, on a hot June afternoon, five British officers entered the Egyptian village of Denshawai to go pigeon shooting. The angry villagers protested the shooting of their domesticated livelihood. One of the officers, in a Cheney-style moment, accidentally shot a female villager and set fire to their grain. The angry villagers retaliated and the British officers wounded five villagers - the exchange resulted in casualties on both sides. When the British authorities intervened, they had the choice between serving out justice or order. They purely chose the latter: 52 villagers were put on trial for premeditated murder, 32 were found guilty with four hanged, and the rest were flogged. The Egyptian public was up in flames. The event would mark a dramatic turning point in the British occupation of Egypt and see the Empire’s sun set over the Nile.

Thus, Saeed’s tragedy is Egypt’s tragedy.

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 9, 2010 5:18 AM
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