Egypt was spot on when it left Cairo’s Tahrir Square void of a statue of a notable figure.
True, there is a statue of Omar Makram standing to one side, but the square could have enjoyed the presence of a statue of, say, late president Gamal Abdel-Nasser, who was revered by millions of Egyptians and Arabs alike, or maybe of late president Anwar Al-Sadat, who will be forever remembered for having reclaimed Sinai and placed Egypt on the path to peace.
However, Egyptian prudence left Tahrir Square void of any statue. Today, an obelisk and four ancient Egyptian rams adorn the square.
Had a statue of a historical figure stood proud in Tahrir Square, it might have met the fate of the many other statues around the world that have been pulled down during recent protests. What is glorified by one group at a given moment in history may be unappreciated by others at a different one, and Egypt has saved itself from the trauma that the rest of the world is going through today.
Amidst the fury that often comes about in the protests of the beleaguered, acts of defiance can manifest themselves in the destruction of statues and monuments. History saw the toppling of the statue of Ferdinand de Lesseps in Suez during the Tripartite Aggression against Egypt in 1956, the fall of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad during the US-led invasion of Iraq, and of statues of Lenin in states emerging from Soviet control in the 1990s, among them Ukraine. It has seen changes to the names of public buildings, schools and stations in Egypt after the ousting of former president Hosni Mubarak.
After the death of African-American man George Floyd in Minneapolis in the US, statues around the world were defaced, beheaded, vandalised or shoved into rivers during the ensuing Black Lives Matter protests. Some were also taken down by officials who believed the statues represented racism or injustice and were offensive to many.
Statues are tributes that glorify a person thought to be worth recognising. But many statues not only offend but also cause outrage. Many institutions are revoking the privileges they have bestowed upon certain figures, including universities that have immortalised them by naming halls, libraries and other buildings after them. Many prestigious institutions are now rethinking the honours they have bestowed on such people. Countries and cities alike have named streets, universities, schools and many other locales after those they have considered to be eminent persons, and today they aim to remove the reputable standing they have given to such figures.
The existence of racism, apartheid, slavery and white supremacy is undeniable, and the brutality of invaders and colonialists, which many of these statues uphold, is also undeniable. However, how far should we go in removing the signs of this history? Would we then still be able to understand what happened in the past? Where do we draw the line? Have we gone from the sublime to the extreme?
Because of their accessibility, statues are usually the first to get hit. A statue of former British prime minister Winston Churchill in London was one of many to be targeted, and the police had to board up the statue and form a ring around it to protect it from vandalism. Yet, history tells us that Churchill was indeed a white supremacist, and he is on record as saying things that prove his racism.
“I do not admit, for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America, or the black people of Australia... A stronger race, a higher-grade race, or, at any rate, a more worldly wise race, to put it that way, has come in and taken their place,” he said. He also said that he hated Indians and people with “slit eyes and pig tails,” and he referred to Palestinians as “barbaric hordes who ate little but camel dung.”
But he was also the leader that rallied the British during World War II and led them to victory. So, how should we remember Churchill? Should we emphasise the good or the bad? According to a recent article on the US news channel CNN, “portraying Churchill as the root of all wickedness… is as problematic as viewing him as the single-handed saviour of freedom and democracy.”
In the US, statues of Christopher Columbus and many others have met the same fate. First Nations people believe that Columbus represents colonisation and slavery, and now cities and provinces named after him may change their names. A call in British Columbia in Canada to change its name has begun, for example. Petitions are also underway to rename Columbus in Ohio in the US.
The US computer company IBM has said it will stop selling facial-recognition equipment to anyone, including the police, as it may be used in mass surveillance and racial profiling. This is a good thing, but when the epic US film “Gone with the Wind” is removed from video-on-demand streaming services, we are going overboard.
Indeed, the removal of symbols of tyranny and racism may have gone beyond the rational and at times beyond the sane. Quaker Oats, the owner of the “Aunt Jemima” brand of food products in the US that features a laughing black woman on its packaging, has called the image a “racist stereotype” and is planning to drop the brand altogether. Other popular US brands such as Uncle Ben’s rice, Mrs Butterworth’s syrup and pancakes and Eskimo pies ice cream are all about to follow suit or be given a makeover.
The most extreme case came when anti-racist protesters called for the destruction of the Great Pyramids in Giza because, according to them, they were built by slaves. Even if this were true, which it isn’t, should we destroy the Pyramids for such a bizarre reason? I doubt any Egyptian would go along with this simple-minded suggestion.
Consistency will be hard to implement. What about Mount Rushmore, the massive sculpture of four United States presidents in the US? Though the four presidents depicted on the monument were immense contributors to the US that exists today, they all endorsed and accepted if not slavery then at least white domination over blacks. Will the Americans demolish an iconic symbol that is visited regularly by millions of citizens?
To make amends and to fix wrongs, statues of those who symbolise bigotry, racism and tyranny must go, but I hope things don’t go too far in removing such historical images. Let’s not go overboard on this.
The writer is the author of Cairo Rewind on the First Two Years of Egypt’s Revolution, 2011-2013.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 July, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly