Saturday, November 12, 2011

Translation: Alaa Abd El Fattah on the Night of Maspero

This piece was first published in Arabic in al Shorouk on October 20th. It is widely felt to have been one of the triggers for Alaa Abd El Fattah's summons to the Military Prosecutor, and his subsequent incarceration. 

To be with the Martyrs, which is better by far

Two days we spent in the morgue; two days with bodies fighting to hold onto the title of “shaheed”, martyr. Fighting the entire Mubarak regime, not just the Mubarak military that crushed them with the armoured personnel carriers, nor the Mubarak media that deprived them of their rightful title and described them as killers, nor the Mubarak Prosecution that wriggled out of doing justly by them; the bodies fought to hold onto the radiance befitting martyrdom – in a poor public hospital with no facilities. They fought against the superstition of the Mubarak era that said an autopsy is a desecration of the dead not an insistence on their rights, they fought against the authority of the priests and sheikhs of the ruler who suggest that if you seek justice in this world you renounce it in the next, they fought against the Mubarak sectarianism that made the poor find enemies in the poor rather than in those who steal the bread from the poor.

Two days in the company of merciful death and a shame without mercy. Why, my Lord, are most of our shuhada poor? How do the gun and the APC distinguish? The blood’s the same and the grave’s the same and yet martyrdom rejects us again and again. Egypt is choosy; she’ll only pick the best amongst us, and Mina Daniel is her choice. Without him we would not have won in the morgue.

Blessed are the Meek

They came to the hospital in their hundreds, looking for wounded bodies to heal and slain bodies to bury. They came to the hospital looking for shelter on a night when all their fears came true. They came to the hospital looking to share their anger, looking for strength in numbers. They came as the flock of the church. And the hospital was besieged by civilian attackers (perhaps the ‘upstanding citizens’ whom Mubarak’s media addresses day and night) complicit with the protectors of security and the protectors of the revolution, to drill into them that they belong nowhere but within the flock of the church.

We came looking for our comrade, our comrade with the big smile: Mina who resembles us as we resemble him. Martyrdom chose Mina because he belongs to the flock of Tahrir and the Revolution; his family insisted in including his friends in every decision – because they’re his friends. Mina fought from behind the screen of the other world so that the hearts of the families of the shuhada might be opened to us and we become comrades in the one struggle. For our blood is one and our tears too are one, and as we saw the truth in the tears of the shuhada’s mothers when it was so absent from the television screens, so they saw the truth of our tears. They understood that we are Mina’s friends and they forgot to ask about our names with the usual suspicion.

The hospital wrote its reports in the fashion of Maspero: they died of heart attacks – or was it a fight? The priests came forward with their counsel: Let us bury them quickly for it’s hot and the morgue has no refrigerators. We interfered, with the conceit of Tahrir and its innocence: what about justice? What about their rights? Their bodies are the last chance to prove the crime, we need a Coroner’s report.

What idiocy is this? Should we mistreat our children’s bodies looking for a justice we’ve not once seen? Even by accident? What justice when we are poor? What justice when we are Copts? What justice when the killer rules? Do you not understand that we are weak?

But Mina is amongst us, and his sister was the first to agree to the autopsy and – when we would not let go, when the lawyers amongst us encouraged them - they started to be convinced one after the other - unwillingly. These were hours of weeping and discussing and embracing, fighting time throughout with slabs of ice and miserable fans – that our love and care might keep the bodies pure.

At the start of the second day the Prosecution arrived to find half the families demanding autopsies. The judge issued his decree: either he issues burial permits for all or an order to the coroner, is not everyone equal in death? And of course the priests were generous with their counsel: in a short while Father will bless their friends, if you’re late he will have returned to his cell. Have mercy on your children for their reward in heaven will be great.

We stood together: one front fighting against the regime, but this time the front is in the mind, and the line of fire is on the heart. And as the regime was defeated by our chants and our stones, it was defeated by our solidarity. After a long debate the Prosecution issued the order to perform autopsies on all the bodies - provided we secure the conditions for the Coroner’s committee to work.

Yes. It started with us being responsible for the safety of our demonstrations, then we became responsible for the security of public structures, and here we are today responsible for the safety of the government’s civil servants if we want the state to behave as though it were a state . We didn’t spend time on the question “So what’s the role of the police and the army”; the answer was clear on the bodies of the shuhada.

We said to the families the autopsies will take a long time; let’s move the bodies to the Zeinhom Morgue where the facilities are better. The fear returned to the families’ eyes; yes Mina had given them a belief in Egypt, but the rumour machine had not stopped working and the gangs of upstanding citizens had not stopped terrorizing them all night. They didn’t say it openly for our sakes but we understood: we will not leave the Coptic district, we don’t know what evil awaits us outside it.

We had, then, to secure the hospital and guarantee the Committee suitable conditions to work. We had to empty the building of fearful thousands, to control angry thousands. And we were an intruding few. We had to – the irony of it – perform the role of the Central Security Forces. A new front and all we have is our unity.

The Committee started to work under our protection, and under the supervision of our lawyers and our doctors; our unknown fighters, who’ve experienced all forms of injustice and so know more about the signs of murder and torture and the evidence of crimes and massacres than the forensic experts. The Committee started work in the shadow of our anxiety that a father would come in and see the scalpel in the body of his son and go wild, or that our lines would collapse under an attack from the upstanding or the wrath of the disaster-stricken.

My Kingdom is Not of this World

The unity of our line worries all the exploiters, and the most dangerous of them are the traders in the cause. They descended on us with their honeyed poison: Do you trust that Lawyer? She’s young and doesn’t know anything. I have a lot of experience. And who are those people? They’re all Muslim, how can you trust them? You warned us months ago, Mina, when you said Maspero had to join Tahrir. The demands of the Copts have to be the demands of the people, and the demands of the people have to be the demands of the Copts. It’s difficult, Mina. Those in power are ignorant, their blows are haphazard. These ones know exactly where the old wounds are. We spent the rest of the day fighting their rumours and their accusations, regaining the people’s confidence, re-establishing their calm.

We played a role that we first thought was like the role of the Central Security Forces. But how different! I shall never know how any security organization anywhere in the world imagines that violence is an effective way to control angry or frightened people. Who advised every government on earth that facing people with weapons will bring calm? We had no weapons in the face of anger except our selves; we threw our bodies in front of the people and with embraces and with tears for the shuhada we were able to break up the lying mists of a military sectarian reality and spread the truth of a dream of a free Egypt.

Oh Mina, Egypt of Tahrir is fragile, one stray bullet can kill her – and Egypt of Tahrir is strong, one embrace can save her. Mina, in your presence I understand the instructions of the prophets. When will the soldiers understand?

When the Coroner’s committee started work the experts grumbled at the lack of facilities, at the conditions, at the supervision we placed on them. But in the end they had to do their job. As they neared the end of their work with the bodies and started to record the causes of death, someone started a rumour that the reports lied because the ‘cause of death’ might mention one wound as even though the body had many. The families believed the rumour. There was anger and our lines collapsed.

On the brink of victory we met our most severe trial: the families had believed in the dream of justice and allowed us to mess with the bodies of their children, they’d foregone the blessing of Father praying over them, their burial itself might be delayed for another night. They’d given us all the sacrifice we asked for even though they’d hesitated at first. And here we were presenting them with technical jargon and lawerly tangles. Why does the report say he was run over by a heavy vehicle? The truth is clear and everyone knows it was an armoured personnel carrier; why doesn’t it say an armoured personnel carrier? What is this “fiery missile”? Why didn’t you write “army bullets”? Did you not promise me justice? Where is the name of the killer when we all know it?

I don’t know when we won, we were drowning in the details of details, but at one point I looked around me and saw that our united lines now included the hospital workers, the doctors, the priests. What have you done, Mina? Did the weakness of your family awaken their consciences? Or did your strength touch their imagination? We crossed so many barriers in just a few hours? Even the Coroner’s doctors joined us. The only solution was to sit with each family individually, to explain the meaning of ‘causes of death’, the details still to be added to the Coroner’s report, the role of the Prosecutor and the lawyers – the spirit spread to the Coroner and transformed him from someone just doing a job into a guardian of justice, perhaps when he had to translate the language of reports written for the powerful into the language of the weak. I saw his doctors describe the features of the shuhada to their families that they might know they weren’t merely bodies; to prove that they remembered them and cared for their reputation.

I saw that thing for which you were martyred come true if just for a moment.

On our way to church the victory was complete. No-one any longer asked the names of those who lifted the shuhada onto their shoulders, those who led the chants, was it a Muslim who started “We’ll get what they died for / Or die as they died?” Our blood is one, our tears too are one.

Turn the Other Cheek

Before the Coptic Hospital we were at another, further from the heart of events, waiting for an Xray of Ahmad’s foot, hit with a live bullet.

We found Ahmad in Tal3at Harb Street. He was trying, with his friends, to save the country by returning to Tahrir. The shuhada had fallen just a few hours back. The shabab did not think of the balances of power, or if their numbers were big enough, or what they should do since the unarmed (according top their press conference) forces were firing generously, they thought only of the terrible things that would happen if Tahrir was left to the mercenaries marching with the blessings of the army and the police, chanting Islameyya, Islameyya. We all knew it was a put-up demonstration, an attempt to paint a military massacre in civilian colours and lay it at the door of the Salafis.

Ahamd was like some mythical hero: resisting his friends, refusing to go to hospital, arguing that the wound was superficial and the shot just (khartoush). We persuaded him to go to a private hospital away from the events. We carried him. In the taxi he told us he’d been detained and had tasted the torture of our infallible army and the integrity of the military judiciary. He told us of his injury in the treacherous battle of Abbaseyya. His wounds didn’t prevent him coming out again in the face of bullets.

At the hospital, when we discovered he’d been shot with live ammunition, an intelligence officer arrived to interrogate him. He answered coldly and with defiance, and was scornful of the officer’s comment when he learned his name: “So you’re Muslim.” Would he have stopped him going home if he’d been Christian?

We did not find out that Ahmad was weak like us until he cried when the doctor disinfected his wound. And we didn’t realize that he was a schoolboy till he took a call from his mother: “What Maspero, Mama? I’m just out with my friends.”

Does General Hamdi Badeen know that amongst us are those who fear their loving mothers more than they fear bullets and APCs? Has the Field-Marshall, the Musheer, heard our chant: “Ya Musheer, ya Musheer / A bridgeroom goes out from Tahrir” as we accompanied Mina Daniel on his last visit to the Midan? Do any of the military understand the meaning of Khaled Said’s mother’s visit to Mina Daniel’s mother? Or have they forgotten the blood, the tears, the embrace and the dream? Have they forfeited their place amongst us even as we’ve made room for those who’ve let us down before?

Alaa Abd El Fattah
Thursday October 20, 2011


  1. Thank you for translating this. I followed the incidents back in january and february, but got confused over time by all those names and groups coming up in the revolution. I have friends here in Germany who say that democracy was good, but doubt that the revolution would bring it forth, they rather fear that radical islamists would take over the country and they fear for our Christian Brethren. So I am grateful for every English language article on the revolution, of explaining what's going on. We have hardly an idea here and we don't speak arabic to read for ourselves.