During troubled times, amidst the fury that often grips the beleaguered, an act of defiance manifests itself in the destruction of statues and monuments of those considered enemies or oppressors. Throughout history and across the world, many monuments have faced such a tragic end.
After 1956, the people of Port Said, provoked by the Tripartite Invasion, pulled down the statue of Ferdinand De Lesseps, the developer of the Suez Canal. The statue stood at the entrance of the Suez Canal with its right arm stretched out, indicating the open waterway to the East. Today, the same statue sits in a shipyard in Port Said, neglected and utterly forgotten.
In 2002, in Firdous Square, Baghdad, a colossal statue, 12 metres high, was erected in celebration of Saddam Hussein’s 65th birthday. In 2003, after the US invasion, Iraqis wrapped a chain around the statue’s neck and pulled it down. After some stomping, they decapitated the statue and dragged it through the streets.
In 2015, at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, students removed a monument of colonialist Cecil Rhodes, protesting what the statue symbolised: historical white oppression. Rhodes was the initiator of racial segregation laws in South Africa.
And today in the US, nothing short of a mini-uprising is occurring against Confederates and what their statues symbolise.
Long after the American Civil War, the war that abolished slavery, statues of Confederate leaders were erected. To many Americans, especially blacks, these statues were built to sustain the image of white supremacy, viewing bigotry as a right and honouring partisanship.
To make amends and in response to the anger on American streets, officials in many states, in particular southern ones, are removing or covering many of the Confederate leaders’ statues.
But it is not only statues that are being removed around the world; once a leader is toppled, streets, schools, and institutions bearing their name are renamed.
In Egypt, after January 25th, the names of former president Hosni Mubarak and his wife Suzanne were removed from all public buildings and facilities. According to The Guardian, “hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of subway stations, schools, streets, squares and libraries across Egypt” had been renamed.
Another symbol of the past is Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister, whose name appears on many public schools and on the airport of the country’s capital, and whose face appears on the Canadian $10 bill.
Today some consider him the founder of genocide against the indigenous people of Canada. Though his name has not been removed yet, the idea is brewing, with a motion passed by an Ontario teachers union to do just that.
So how far do we go in erasing the past?
For starters, whether by naming an institution after him or by erecting his statue, commemorating a person is passé. Celebrating a country, its people, and its significant moments overrides celebrating a person. A time may come when a particular figurehead is scorned, but a country and its people will always be revered.
The monument known as Nahdet Masr, a masterpiece in its own right, will survive rulers, alliances, and enemies. The Sphinx and the peasant woman, together represent Egypt. She is uncovering her face, symbolising Egypt’s advancement, while her other hand lies over the Sphinx in protection of Egypt’s history, as the Sphinx rests with front paws outstretched in defence against enemies. It is a treasure that will survive the ages.
But what about existing statues? I agree that to make amends and fix wrongs, statues of those who symbolise bigotry, racism, and tyranny must go. However, I hope we don’t go too far in removing our historical roots.
Thousands of monuments and statues of Confederate leaders stand in universities and schools across the US. Will they all be dismantled?
What about Mount Rushmore, the massive sculpture of four United States presidents? Though the four presidents depicted on the monument were immense contributors to the US as it exists today, they all endorsed and accepted, if not slavery, then at least dominance over blacks. Remember: the monument has become an iconic symbol of the US and is visited by over two million tourists every year.
A few days back, Gone with the Wind, the epic Hollywood movie of the 1940s, that has been watched by millions around the world, was deemed “insensitive” by a majority of the audience in Memphis, Tennessee, because it glorifies slavery. The war on Gone with the Wind has started; chances are it won't be shown again.
In Egypt, black-and-white movies had the photos of King Farouk blackened out, as though King Farouk never existed. But he did exist, whether some like it or not.
However, the same action has not been applied to colour movies that include President Mubarak’s photos, a sign that we may have learned our lesson.
So where do we draw the line?
First, the fate of monuments and relics of the past must be decided by those who know enough about history to differentiate between what can be construed as offensive and what can't. It must not be left to mob vindictiveness, which occurs on the streets and during moments of weakness.
Here is a good example. In South Africa, as apartheid disintegrated, the South African government removed many statues of apartheid-era leaders, but it did not destroy them. Rather it donated them to private heritage organizations. Many are now displayed in private museums and memorial gardens instead of open parks and government buildings.
South Africa’s government implemented another unique strategy; where there were significant statues, it preferred, instead of removing them, to erect new ones alongside the old ones. The aim was to exhibit a South Africa that encompasses all.
Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Rather than destroying the past, we should think of ways to preserve it, maybe less prominently, even if it isn’t to our personal liking.
The writer is an academic, political analyst, and author of Cairo Rewind: the First Two Years of Egypt's Revolution, 2011-2013.