November 17, 2019

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  • Egypt: The Sonata of the Departed

    Screen grab shows the flag-wrapped caskets of 25 policemen killed execution-style in Sinai on August 19.

    BY NAEL M. SHAMA Cairo – The military funeral of 25 policemen who were massacred in cold blood in Sinai last month was intensely touching. The slow, dignified procession, the sad funeral dirge, the anguish of the mothers of the fallen and the tears of mourners exuded an overwhelming sense of grief. Funerals are always poignant and gloomy. They remind us of the brevity of life, the inevitability of death and the fragility of our souls. Some funerals also help us capture the immense capacity of the living to inflict injustice and death.

    Men are all equal in death, differences in status, wealth and knowledge notwithstanding. They all wind up lying under a tombstone bearing an inscribed epitaph to mark their grave.  But the way the living treat their dead is unequal. While some get solemn funerals, others are unceremoniously ditched in pit.

    Some of us do not take the words of farewell they deserve after the death they did not deserve.

    The “Us vs. Them” Epidemic  

    This cannot be more vivid than in Egypt where, last month alone, hundreds lost their lives in the country’s bloody political conflict. The distance between the glorification of some of Egypt’s victims and the demonization of others speaks volumes about the depth of injustice to which our nation has sunk. The unfairness of it is disturbing, exposing the cracks that permeated our souls and distorted our sense of humanity. The dead have left and will never be resurrected, but the living who incited, condoned or executed the killings and then danced by the dead bodies are our partners in this nation, our fellow citizens. This is a very scary revelation.

    Indeed, the worst thing happening in Egypt now may not be the killings, as brutal as they are, but rather the response of some Egyptians to the killings, oscillating between indifference and jubilation. Many Egyptians celebrated the violent dispersal of the pro-Morsi encampments in Cairo, which left hundreds dead and thousands injured. For them, it was the day of victory over the Muslim Brothers, who they believe had attempted to hijack the state and alter its identity. The massacres were just collateral damage, and should not impede the partying, they said. The strongholds of their chief adversary were wiped out, its top leaders were either arrested or forced to flee to hideouts, all good reasons to be elated and optimistic. After all, it is a very ugly war against a very menacing opponent. Who in war ever mourns the fall of his enemy? This can be a valid argument, if only one sees his/her fellow Egyptians as an enemy to be overpowered, humiliated and obliterated.

    And after every round of confrontation, comes the phase of counting and dividing the dead; how many of us versus how many of them. The battle has to go on even after the guns fall silent. No weapon, argument, image or lie is spared in the quest for triumph. There is no time to pause and reflect, for the stakes are high and the cost of lethargy is massive.

    The politicians of the new order (and their staunch allies in the state and media) glorify the police officers and soldiers who perished on the battlefield. Those who died on the other side of the national chasm are irrelevant, hence ignored and, if mentioned, diabolized. The stories of their death would expose our side’s practices and jeopardize our narrative, the anti-Islamists reason. And what do the Islamists do? They, likewise, honor their victims, the martyrs, and diabolize the others’ victims.

    Death in Egypt has become a statistic, a soulless number announced every evening by the authorities. On a less violent day, when fewer than, say, ten people lose their lives in street battles, people heave a sigh of relief. “It could’ve been worse,” Egyptians murmur contentedly. With the increasing number of casualties, they have even begun wondering about which civil war ours will emulate: Will Egypt follow in the footsteps of Lebanon, Algeria or Syria? The possibilities are no longer between good and bad, but rather between bad, worse and worst. Gone are the dreams that hovered in our skies on February 11, 2011, when we built castles in the air and overlooked the misery encircling us on the ground. Our hearts fooled our minds. We were so naïve.

    Murder without Remorse   

    Whatever happened to this nation? Egyptians have long been known for their patience and warmth, not for stolidity and cruelty. So when did we acquire this toxic mélange of callousness and apathy? Why have we allowed our political and ideological differences to overshadow what we have in common? And, more importantly, where are these destructive ill feelings leading us?

    To nurture both the soil and the soul, ancient Egyptians treated the river and the dead with reverence. They believed there was life after life; death was a bridge to eternity. They turned tombs into giant pyramids and considered funerals and burials to be sacred processions. The spread of Islam in Egypt reinforced Egyptians’ belief in the sanctity of life. Bloodshed is a more serious sin than the demolition of the Kaaba shrine, Prophet Muhammad said.

    But something tremendously awful has permeated our souls in recent years, undermining respect for both the living and the dead. In the good old days, a dispute between two arguing men could be cooled down if a third party intervened, invoking the disputants to recite their “blessings on the Prophet.” Today, scenes of raging crowds who kill innocents, mutilate dead bodies, or burn churches, as they chant “God is great,” are not uncommon. Suffice it to take a close look at the footage of the killing of four Egyptian Shias last June in a village in Giza. While the victims were beaten to death with sticks by a hostile mob, the audience witnessing the savage crime yelled and cursed; no one intervened to prevent the lynching. Everyone in the scene appeared nonchalant about the heartbreaking screams of the victims.

    The French novelist Drieu La Rochelle, writing in the 1930s, lamented that “the only way to love France today is to hate it in its present form.” Just substitute France with Egypt, and the sentence would make perfect sense. It is painful, but couldn’t be truer.

    Nael M. Shama, PhD, is a political researcher and writer based in Cairo, Egypt. He can be reached at:

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