During the 18-day uprising that led to the ouster of Hosni Mubarak last year, over 850 people were killed. Since then scores more have lost their lives. These fallen protesters have been described as martyrs by groups across Egypt's ideological spectrum: from revolutionary forces and political parties to the ruling military council.
The notion of "martyrdom" has not been widely used in Egyptian public discourse since the 1970s, when the term was then applied in the context of the 1973 October War against Israel. But the concept and language of martyrdom has now become commonplace and is reminiscent of the symbolic presence of the martyr within the Palestinian struggle. Weathered posters across Palestine commemorate fallen resistance fighters and speak to the country's collective experience with martyrdom.
Khaled Said, killed by police in 2010; Sally Zahran, killed during January's popular uprising; Mina Daniel, killed in October during a military crackdown on a Coptic Christian rights march to Maspero; and Emad Effat, killed in clashes outside the Cabinet's offices in December have all become iconic faces of the revolution. Their pictures feature prominently in January 25th paraphernalia as well as in graffiti and street art throughout Egypt. Depictions of fallen protesters' faces are now almost a common sight on the walls of Cairo and beyond.
Within 24 hours of what has been termed the Port Said football massacre on 1 February, pro-revolutionary artists were painting the images of those killed on the walls of Mohamed Mahmoud Street adjacent to Tahrir Square. More than 70 people died in less than an hour when Masry fans are said to have stormed the pitch following a victory against Ahly. Ultras Ahlawy, hardcore football supporters, suffered the lion's share of losses. Those killed are considered martyrs however, as many suspect security forces of complicity and suggest that the Ultras were specifically targeted for their role in ongoing protests.
The youngest of those victims was a 15-year-old boy, Anas, whose father has recently made public comments that raise questions about the political uses of the images and names of those killed.
In an interview Monday evening on privately-owned television channel Dream TV, Anas' father, Mohyedeen Abdel Rahman, singled out the April 6 Youth Movement as bearing responsibility for the exploitation of his son.
He described the movement as an agent of foreign-funded schemes in Egypt. By posting Anas' image on their pamphlets, Abdel Rahman believes the group has abused the situation and used the death of his son to further incite anti-regime protests.
Echoing claims made by the ruling military council, he further added that April 6 has a large budget and that it recruits younger and less educated youth to their movement.
In response, the April 6 Youth Movement issued a statement on Tuesday morning expressing their condolences to Anas' father. It outlined some of their main efforts towards ensuring that all “martyrs' will not have died in vain,” adding that they “strive to support the right of every martyr and their families.” In the statement, they also refuted accusations made about their funding, stating that they depend on small scale contributions, sometimes as simple as LE20 from their members.
The group stressed that they are working for a better future for Egypt where young men like Anas would not need to worry about losing their sons at a football match.
Addressing Abdel Rahman directly, they said, “May God forgive you Anas' father, you stabbed our hearts with a cold knife” but added that such points of views are understandable in times of grief, when one may confuse friend for foe.
Prominent blogger Mahmoud Salem, known by his Twitter handle @sandmonkey, contributed to the debate on his Twitter page. Salem asserted that “we assume that the martyrs who die are our martyrs and that their families are with us, without much backing this up at all.” He suggested that there was a certain opportunism in using the dead.
A similar debate was sparked last year over the right to use an image of Sally Zahran. There were conflicting reports of the cause of her death: with accounts of her death at the hands of regime thugs during the “Battle of the Camel” on 2 February being refuted by claims that she fell from a balcony. The iconic image of her smiling face was criticised after reports circulated that she had been veiled. In a televised interview, her mother said she had indeed worn the veil. But images of an unveiled Sally Zahran behind the mother led some to speculate that she had come under pressure.
The debate stirred by Anas' accusations and statements will not go away, not least because the heavily loaded symbol of the martyrs and their families is used by political forces across Egypt's political spectrum.
The martyrs have become a political lightening-rod. Martyrs' families have been a visible presence at all Tahrir Square sit-ins. In June, clashes erupted between police and protesters with the latter reporting that a group of martyrs' families were attacked. These events gave rise to Tahrir Square's July sit-in. The main demand of which was for the government to honour the rights of the martyrs.
Official statements claiming that some of those killed were not protesters but thugs and offers of monetary compensation to families have sparked indignation and condemnation.
On the side of officialdom, Mubarak metro station in Cairo was quickly renamed Al-Shohadaa or Martyrs station. Unofficially protesters have put up signs, for example renaming Mohamed Mahmoud Street as Martyrs Street after five days of violence in November left more than 40 dead.
Mock coffins are often seen at protests, most spectacularly at a martyrs' march a week after the Mohamed Mahmoud violence. Slogans invoking the martyrs are often chanted with fervour. “I hear the sound of the martyrs' mother calling, I want my rights and the rights of my children,” says one. Another: “Either we will get their rights or die like them.” This slogan is stencilled beneath an image of Anas' smiling face on the walls of Cairo.
As Egyptian protesters continue to struggle for their dignity and rights, rallying around their fallen compatriots as a symbol of these yet-absent demands, the debate for the dues of the martyrs will persist, and the image of the martyrs will be used and abused, maligned and glorified.