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Healing Egypt’s wounds

No talk of “transition to democracy” can be taken even remotely seriously until that healing process begins

H.A. Hellyer

Published: Updated:

The thing about healing is that it unfortunately requires… well, healing. Without a process to repair and restore, any talk of healing a wound is fanciful and whimsical. Perhaps worse; it is dangerous, because it lulls so many into a false sense of accomplishment, which then leads them to be taken so wholly off guard when the results of trauma strike. Egypt, unfortunately, has a great deal of trauma to deal with – and the healing has not even begun.

Two years ago yesterday was the Battle of the Cabinet – the Egyptian cabinet of the then transitional government under Field Marshal Tantawi. A peaceful sit-in was underway at the cabinet building by pro-revolutionary protesters, and was cracked down upon by military police in order to clear it. In the clashes that then ensued, seventeen people were killed, and hundreds were wounded. One of them was Shaykh Emad Effat.

Shaykh Emad was one of the scholars of the Azhar who was present in Tahrir Square during the 18 days of the 2011 uprising, considering the protests a form of “calling to good and forbidding the wrong” – a Muslim’s duty, according to classical Islamic teachings. Reflecting upon his time in the square afterwards, he said: “The first time I’ve ever seen Egypt was in Tahrir. I’ve never seen Egypt before then.” All reports point to him having been killed with a military issued bullet in 2011.

It seems fitting that only a few weeks before, Shaykh Emad was asked for his fatwa about the legality of shooting protesters. His response was unambiguous and undeniable: That it was forbidden under any circumstances. The taking of his life brought sorrow to many – but his passing was joyful in its own way, as the funeral march included the broad diversity of Egypt. His death reminded people of his statement about Tahrir Square – because his funeral was that diverse – and about his declaration on the killing of protesters – because he himself was killed in contravention of that same declaration.

Political violence

Two years on, one wonders: How different might Egypt have been had more Egyptians taken heed of his two statements. How much less death, and how much more respect of difference would there be. Many now will seek to ruin his memory, by claiming him as their own. Only a few weeks after the July 3 ouster of Mursi, one could hear radio hosts speaking of how the Muslim Brotherhood (not the military police) had killed Shaykh Emad, in a complete rewriting of history. One may suspect the Muslim Brotherhood might also try to reassign his memory to their cause of reinstating Mursi – although Shaykh Emad Effat was known for his opposition to those who “trade in religion.” But, as with so much in the past three years, the truth has become a victim of that filthy thing called “politics.” One of Shaykh Emad’s contemporaries, I am told, used to say “politics is filth.”

As with so much in the past three years, the truth has become a victim of that filthy thing called “politics”

H.A. Hellyer

If so many Egyptians have forgotten how Shaykh Emad first saw Egypt in Tahrir Square, and what that meant, even more have forgotten his now famous fatwa about the killing of protesters. A friend recounted it here:

“A man called asking for a fatwa, a non-binding legal opinion from Sheikh Emad, Tarek told me. He wanted to know if it was permissible according to the sharia, for a police officer or other government official to fire upon protesters. “No,” said Sheikh Emad. “And if they are attacking the police with rocks?” The man asked. “No.” “And if they are destroying property and causing damage?” “No.” “What if they are causing civil strife among them Muslims,” the man said, invoking the most grievous of social acts in the religion. “No.” “Is there any circumstance where perhaps a police officer is entitled to shoot at a civilian?” “In theory,” Sheikh Emad said to the man, “It is possible that there is a circumstance where an officer may shoot a civilian, non-lethally, but I, for one, will give no such opinion.”

Lacking human rights

Few seem to have paid attention to that kind of approach – an approach, it ought to be noted, that came from a senior and authoritative member of the government’s own “Dar al-Ifta” (House of Religious Verdicts). A few days ago, on the occasion of the International Human Rights Day, an assembly of Egyptian human rights organisations, including Human rights Watch, Amnesty International, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, and the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, issued a joint statement and report on the killing of protesters. It stands as an impressive, if depressing, call for accountability for the killing of protesters by state forces in Egypt.

The report counts no less than thirteen different incidents over the course of the post-Mubarak transition where protesters were killed – with precious little (if any) accountability achieved in their collective aftermath. That ranges from the up to 1000 people killed in the clearing of the pro-Mursi sit-in in Rabaa on the August 14, 2013, to a similar number during the January 2011 uprising across the country. It includes people killed during Field Marshal Tantawi’s tenure between 2011 and 2012, then under President Mursi’s rule between 2011 and 2012, and now under the military-backed interim government of 2013. Under none of these regimes has justice, accountability – and in some cases, even acknowledgement – been achieved.

Nelson Mandela, the great South African hero, passed away a few days ago. He had many victories in life – but one of them was taking seriously the notion of collective healing. His nation, as a result of the abuses under apartheid, needed that healing like no other. Egypt needs that healing – but instead, it seems like there is far more of an appetite for simply allowing the wounds to fester, and even multiply. No talk of “transition to democracy” can be taken even remotely seriously until that healing process begins. In the meantime, the trauma continues and Egyptians continue to pay the price for the folly of their leaders – in blood.

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Dr. H.A. Hellyer, non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, the Royal United Services Institute, and ISPU, previously held senior posts at Gallup and Warwick University. Follow him on Twitter at @hahellyer.

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