The banality of evil: Thinking Hannah Arendt in Cairo

Mona Abaza , Saturday 15 Oct 2011

The atrocious killings in Maspero are not so much sectarian as a staging point in a full-scale counterrevolution

In my last article for Ahram Online, I had expressed concern about growing xenophobia. But last Sunday’s tragic massacre of Coptic demonstrators triggered even bleaker thoughts, this time about populist mass behaviour and fascist tendencies. We are at the peak of the counter-revolution and the spectrum of an ascending fascism is clearly in the making. I am using the word fascism because my impression, and I might be wrong, is that a certain mood has been changing in the street. I sense a feeling of collective exhaustion because everyday life is turning even more strenuous for many and the economic hardship is touching everybody. Endless traffic jams and increasing strikes in various sectors, which are legitimate but which end up by paralysing the city, and the functioning of the state for the benefit of individuals, and also add to it pollution and the yearly intake of some 100,000 new cars, all this makes Cairo an inferno. I perceive in these days a feeling of depression amongst many because time and again the cleaning up of the fulul (remnants of the old regime) is not happening. Many think that those who are sustaining the rhetoric of maintaining order to punish the perpetrators of disorder and chaos are the very producers of it.

The grey dinosaurs, or rather catacombs-like rulers of Egypt, sticking to power in an all-male establishment, do not want to give the space for the younger generations to breathe. The thick black cloud that reappears every year because of the alleged burning of rice straw in the countryside has been taking away already so much oxygen, suffocating and polluting Cairo to the utmost. This black cloud might perhaps be the best metaphor for the actual political suffocation we are experiencing that was epitomised in the last bloody Sunday on 9 October. And life for many of those who were in Tahrir has been made even harder than before January. We know that this is exactly what the fulul want to convey. So that we will perhaps one day end up being nostalgic for the former regime. Yet, this is precisely what is not happening.

The masterminded incidents behind spreading chaos and the recurrent perpetration of the killings of peaceful demonstrators in various incidents since January has been replicated time and again by using an identical logic and identical tactics. Brutal thugs appearing time and again in public spaces to attack peaceful protesters; remember the incident of the Duwayqa garbage collectors, the Balluun Theatre events, the burning of the Atfih Church, the march to Abbasiya, the demonstrations at the Israel Embassy, and then Maspero in the summer; they all resemble each other. Violence erupted while the army and the police forces were always around either watching the events happen or being complicitous against the demonstrators. Since the memorable “Battle of the Camel” in Tahrir, we are constantly reminded that nothing has really changed regarding the violation of human rights.  

However, last Sunday’s Maspero massacre marks a new turn in the history of the January revolution. One thing we know is that the official television channels should be held responsible for the intentional and obnoxious misinformation they diffused. Television officials should be put on trial for the lies they spread, which instigated so much hatred against Copts. State television clearly orchestrated anti-protesters (in this case anti-Christian) propaganda by claiming that the Christians were the aggressors and had attacked the army, which then needed to be defended by the population, adding oil to fire by inciting hatred and encouraging a mob from Bulaq neighbourhood and other popular areas to attack. When the skirmishes and fights had started, the television announced that victims were on both sides, which was evidently not true since the toll from the Coptic side amounted to 26 dead and hundreds of wounded. Clearly a directed violent attack was targeting the protesters. We saw on YouTube videos that there were snipers and rock throwing directed against the protesters.

Even until today none of the three soldiers who were reported dead have been identified or their names made public (I was informed yesterday one soldier had died). We know that the peaceful Coptic protesters after being attacked with rocks and bullets had to react and defend themselves. We also know that the police or army forces had attacked violently the offices of some satellite channels and stopped them from airing the events. All the world saw the carnage that followed on satellite channels, and the most detailed, moving and tragic eyewitness reports by human rights activist Hossam Bahgat, journalist Sarah Carr and various other bloggers like Arabawy, newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm and anchor Yousri Fouda. All have publicly posted eyewitness reports confirming the innocence of the demonstrators. The whole world saw soldiers shooting madly and indiscriminately at demonstrators from the safety of their armoured vehicles.

The whole world also saw the atrocities of sliced bodies with missing heads, arms and legs, after armoured military vehicles targeted the demonstrators. The whole world saw that young, bright and beautiful men like Mina Danial were sacrificed for the cause of the revolution. The whole world saw the collective pain and grief that was inflicted on the Coptic community at the funerals. On that bloody Sunday, attacks on shops owned by Christians were reported. Al-Masry Al-Youm reported that during the attack some were shouting “Islamiya, Islamiya.” Should we still not worry if the populist tone will be pitched for the interest of some to further escalate hatred? And what is next?

No, this was not a pogrom and we all agree that this would be an exaggerated designation. Because as said earlier, the attacks seem to be part of a serial counter-revolutionary plan that has roots and mechanisms in the Mubarak regime. Here the sectarian tag serves best to divert the cause, and minorities always pay the highest price in situations of crisis. This said, since Sunday, I have been giving second thoughts to the antagonistic populist mobs. It was so easy to mobilise them. I am also convinced that television propaganda was successful in selling its version of events.

Cars ramming into demonstrators is another déjà vu atrocity, first experienced during the revolution in January. Here repetition is seriously sickening and yet should one read it as someone wanting to convey a new message, of their unlimited potency? I have no clue if the mastermind behind it realises its international implications with today’s global media coverage.  

Since Sunday, I have recurrently heard the following comment being said by taxi drivers and several people in the street: “But the army was in panic, so it had to defend itself by attacking the violent demonstrators.” As if in this particular case, and because it was the Copts, the massacre would have been justifiable? I am now sure that there is no point in even starting discussions with any of the people who argue so, and frighteningly there are quite a few of them. Mona Anis’s opinion article, in which she demands a legal investigation of the case mentions that the army has denied the act and claimed that the vehicles were stolen!

Since Sunday, each single colleague, friend and neighbour I have spoken to was tearful upon evoking the massacre. Since bloody Sunday, my entire body has been overtaken by nausea. The propaganda machinery that we thought was destroyed after the January revolution seems to have been monstrously resuscitated. It seems that “THEY” are working very hard on conditioning our mental and visual world. THEY are desperately trying to rework our sensory functions in the hope to succeed in mutating us. I just wonder if THEY will eventually succeed in training our brains and memory on normalising the “unthinkable and the terrible”. Would THEY succeed in normalising our collective nightmares about the images of Michael’s bride holding his hand, dead in the morgue, or of the image of cheerful Mina and the many disfigured bodies, the disappeared heads, hands and legs? I am a mother and Mina could have been my son. Would they succeed in conditioning us for the future so that if this were to be repeated, we would then say, it was a normal function because THEY were merely doing their job?

The author wishes to thank colleagues Samia Mehrez and Salima Ikram for their comments and input.

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