The Battle over Historical Memory in Egypt
With Mubarak’s removal in February 2011, the fight over historical narratives has become more overt. It is most intense with respect to events taking place in the past twenty months, since the onset of the January 25th Revolution, but it also involves efforts to rewrite Egyptian history over the past sixty years.
This article addresses the following question: how have key actors in Egypt’s transition used historical narratives and memorialisation to promote their diverse agendas since the fall of Mubarak? It argues that evidence of the unfinished nature of Egypt’s transition is found in continuing state efforts to control access to information as well as historical materials, and in controversies about interpreting Egypt’s contemporary history. The article also provides examples of four different processes through which memory is created, manipulated and conveyed by ordinary people: the collection and storage of materials using digital technologies; demonstrations, marches, and memorial services; renaming of civic spaces; and artistic activism.
Memory and conflict: a double-edged sword
Nearly a century ago, French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs argued that memory is socially constructed. His distinction between history (reaching for an objective, truthful account of events based on professional scholarship) versus collective memory (selectively constructed perceptions of the past formed through interactions among individuals, social groups, and their surrounding environment) has influenced generations of historians, philosophers, and social scientists. Many now agree that human understanding is influenced both by written history and by collective memory, and that societies reconstruct their histories rather than merely record them. Nonetheless, the precise definition of collective memory, and how it influences personal memories, remains elusive and contentious. This is especially true of acts of commemoration or memorialisation that highlight traumatic acts of violence or honour victims of conflict.
Various initiatives contribute to collective memory about conflict and its victims. The forms they take include constructed sites (museums, commemorative libraries, archives, monuments, and virtual memorials); found sites (graves, killing and torture centres, and prisons); and specific processes (anniversaries and celebrations of key events, exhibits, place renaming, parades, demonstrations, vigils, performances, and public apologies).
A wide variety of actors initiate memory projects. Those from civil society include individual victims and survivors, as well as activists, scholars, and artists. Government authorities also play a large role in conceiving and promoting memory sites and projects.
Memorialisation cuts two ways. It can help victims and survivors obtain acknowledgement that they were wronged and can promote social recovery (what some call ‘reconciliation’ or ‘healing’). But it can also crystallise a sense of injustice and strengthen the desire for revenge. Used before, during, and after conflict ends, the documentation of historical events is a highly politicised process that reflects power dynamics within society.
Access to information
Proof that Egypt’s transition to democracy is incomplete is evident in state policy and practices regarding access to historical documents. Nothing has changed since the January 25th Revolution: one still needs a security clearance to use materials stored in Egypt’s National Archives (NA). In fact, Law 356 of 1954, which governs the NA, mandated merely that a committee be established to develop procedures for handling its holdings. But since the 1980s the NA’s board of directors has protected itself from accusations of mismanagement by inviting state security officials to review requests for NA access.
The question of access is one factor stalling a promising initiative. In February 2011, the government empowered an American University in Cairo history professor, Khaled Fahmy, to form a group to collect material documenting the January 25th Revolution to be deposited in the NA. Fahmy agreed on the condition that all materials would be digitised and made freely accessible on the World Wide Web, without security restrictions. But the project’s progress has been slowed by complications that reflect larger battles in Egypt. Security officials have refused to lift the security clearance requirement and prevented Egyptians invited to give oral testimonies and deposit materials from entering the building. Moreover, as violence against protestors has continued, it is also clear that Egyptians will not participate unless legal protections ensure that materials they entrust to the NA will not be used to incriminate them.
Two other issues have also received attention during the transition. The first, ensuring the public’s broader right to information, is a standing concern of Egyptian activists. In 2009, they called for the formation of a coalition promoting that right. In September 2011, the United Group issued a draft constitutional article. Parliament was considering two different draft information laws when it was dissolved in June 2012. The government’s version treated access to information as a privilege, while the civil society version incorporated access to information as a right. Right to information about military budgeting and expenditures was an especially contentious issue at the heart of the debate about these bills.
The second issue stems from concern about the government’s gradual shutdown of different elements of the country’s Internet and phone systems between 25th January and 6th February 2011, in a vain attempt to quell the uprising. That had the unintended effect of launching hundreds of thousands of people into the street, outraged by the government’s action and searching for information. To date, no definitive progress has been made on revising law 356, concerning the broader right of access to information and the government’s ability to switch off the Internet and mobile phone systems at will.
Meanwhile, the battle over access to information has taken other forms. During the initial eighteen days of the uprising, protestors attacked and in some cases destroyed more than ninety neighbourhood police stations. Some were seeking revenge against hated officials. Others were stirred to action when police (claiming self-defence) fired upon residents. Many, however, were looking for documentary evidence of detention and torture of themselves or their family members.
On 5th-6th March 2011, protestors stormed the Ministry of Interior and other offices, including the central office of the State Security Police in Nasr City. They were responding to allegations that documents were being shredded to destroy evidence that could incriminate officials. Some protestors turned seized materials over to government authorities, while some materials were posted on 25Leaks.com. Some sought assistance from German experts experienced in handling the East German Stasi secret police files to help them reconstruct shredded documents. Meanwhile, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) sent millions of text messages via mobile phones, threatening punishment of anyone who made captured documents public.
Official historical revisionism
Meanwhile, internal elections in the now-suspended People’s Assembly for positions on parliamentary committees point to likely controversy about textbook content in the future. A member of the conservative al Nour party was elected chair of the Education and Scientific Research Committee, and that party can be expected to seek the same post in the new parliament. In any case, the Muslim Brotherhood, whose members include public school teachers, has already generated and used unofficial curricula about the group’s role in the January 25th Revolution, causing outrage among some activist groups.
Sensitivity about the historical record of the Mubarak era was revealed in June 2011 when journalist Mohamed Hassanein Heikal asserted that Mubarak played a minor role in air strikes conducted by the Egyptian Air Force in the 1973 war. Dozens of angry officers petitioned the General Prosecutor’s Office to charge Heikal with defaming the Air Force. Curiously, Heikal’s interest in restating the historical record to undermine Mubarak was undercut by his assertion: ‘I don’t think you should be putting the future on hold while you are getting a balance sheet of how the past was conducted.’ A former editor-in-chief of a leading government newspaper under Presidents Nasser and Sadat, Heikal was clearly reluctant to encourage a thorough re-airing of the past.
Four months later, the annual October 6th celebrations marking the 1973 war provided the regime with another opportunity to massage the historical record. Field Marshall Tantawi, the head of SCAF and de facto ruler of Egypt’s transitional period, delivered a speech emphasising the leadership role played by Anwar Sadat and downplaying Hosni Mubarak, who had taken outsized credit for the war after he assumed the presidency. State media also used the anniversary celebrations to praise the armed forces as the protector of the state.
Civil society initiatives
Four processes have been at work over the past months to construct and convey alternative versions of the recent Egyptian past. Largely initiated by civil society actors inside and outside Egypt, they include efforts to collect, preserve and organise historical materials related to the revolution; to recapture public space through place renaming; to remember and honour victims of the conflict through memorial marches and demonstrations; and to promote activism through artistic expression.
Preserving Historical Materials
Controversy has been greatest over the historical record of events occurring just prior to and during the January 25th Revolution. Versions of events fostered by SCAF, and conveyed through state media, have been countered by initiatives documenting recent developments from alternative perspectives. Scholars have made some efforts to collect and preserve materials relating to the recent past. But most initiatives have been mounted by activists and used as spurs to political action. A successful example of the latter type is a virtual memorial on Facebook, We Are All Khalid Said, which became a rallying point for youth activists after it featured photos of Said’s mutilated corpse following his beating by Alexandria police. The site built momentum for the massive demonstrations that followed seven months later. Other websites have emerged to memorialise the dead. One of them, Lan-Nansahom (We Won’t Forget Them) provides biographical information about those killed and injured since protests began.
A civil society initiative has created a virtual platform, Tahrir Documents, to collect and scan materials used by demonstrators. The American University in Cairo is documenting events through its University on the Square project. Bibliotheca Alexandrina (BA), a government institution, established a project called Memory of Modern Egypt several years before the January 25th Revolution. Since then, it has added new materials during a period in which BA’s close ties to the Mubarak family brought it and its director, Ismail Serrageldin, under fire. R-Shief, a non-profit data-mining project is preserving and analysing ‘Arab Spring’ tweets and web-based materials. As of November 2011, it had collected some 128 million tweets. A variety of other sites provide materials and analysis, including The Martyrs of the Freedom - Egyptian Revolution Heroes Project; Jadaliyya; Egypt Remembers; and The Archival Platform.
SCAF has fought back. In past months, SCAF leaders and their supporters have shifted blame for violent acts from the baltagiya (thugs) to mysterious ‘third parties’ and ‘foreign forces’. SCAF’s narrative folds into a larger critique targeting its biggest critics: the Egyptian human rights and activist organisations documenting military and government abuses. In response, an activist campaign fostered by the Revolutionary Forces Alliance (a group of twenty parties and movements) emerged in November 2011. Askar Kazeboon (Lying Military) and SCAF Crimes are two recent online activist initiatives that collected video images of assaults on civilians. Since Kazeboon was launched, activists have aired them in neighbourhoods across the country. Their success in reaching the broader offline public prompted SCAF to establish ‘The National Military Media Committee’ in January 2012 to counter activists’ depictions of past events.
Memorial Demonstrations and Marches
Numerous events and activities largely initiated by civil society have honoured victims of violence. Tahrir Square demonstrators were perhaps the first to build a physical memorial to remember those who lost their lives during the eighteen-day uprising. It was dismantled soon afterwards by the authorities but replaced by other memorials, also subsequently removed.
On 11th November 2011, Coptic Christians organised a march that included the carrying of a symbolic coffin and large pictures of twenty-seven Copts killed as they demonstrated in Cairo’s Maspero neighborhood in October 2011. Another memorial demonstration was organised on 2nd December 2011 in honour of forty-two persons killed primarily on Cairo’s Mohamed Mahmoud Street in November. Condolences were accepted at a memorial tent erected in Tahrir Square, followed by a march with symbolic coffins and then by a memorial service. A number of participants wore symbolic eye patches in honour of those blinded by snipers.
Activists called upon the government to declare an annual day of mourning, to be known as Friday of the Martyr’s Dreams, on January 20th. Large marches and demonstrations also took place throughout Egypt on 25th January 2012 in honour of the day the mass uprising began a year before – on National Police Day, now renamed ‘Revolution Day’. In a demonstration in Tahrir Square, activists evoked an ancient Egyptian symbol when they displayed a huge Pharaonic-style wooden obelisk inscribed with the names of all the Egyptians ‘martyrs’ killed during the previous year.
There are many recent examples of efforts to reclaim civic spaces through renaming. The day after Mubarak was deposed, a Facebook campaign called upon the government to rename the Mubarak metro stop in Cairo after Khalid Said. Nine days later, Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq ordered streets to be renamed after ‘martyrs’. On 21st April 2011, an Egyptian court issued a verdict requiring the removal of Hosni and Suzanne Mubarak’s names from all public places. The Minister of Transport swiftly indicated this would include the Mubarak metro stop, which was renamed ‘al Shuhadaa’ (‘The Martyrs’). At the same time, the Ministry of Education promised to rename some 549 schools around the country named after one member of the Mubarak family or another. This verdict was challenged and suspended by another court on 5th June. Meanwhile, mounting pro-Mubarak sentiment was expressed on the Facebook page Ana Asif Ya Rayas (I’m Sorry, Mr. President). By mid-September 2011, it was one of the largest, most visible pro-Mubarak Facebook groups. Its members took credit for using graffiti to restore Mubarak’s name on the metro stop in August after it was renamed Martyrs in April.
Independent cultural producers – artists, musicians, actors, and others – have played a key role in promoting alternative historical narratives. One innovative example uses ‘crowd sourcing’ to combine material from multiple contributors into a single film, called 18 Days in Egypt. The group’s website invites visitors to upload their materials for inclusion. A filmmakers’ collective, Mosireen (Insisting), also seeks web submission of documentary materials countering state media coverage of events. In July 2011, this group organised a public film festival, Tahrir Cinema, during which it screened documentaries and other materials ridiculing mainstream narratives.
Some groups have tested the weakness of the regime by using civic spaces that were off-limits under the Mubarak government. One example was the holding of an open-air arts festival, ‘al Fann Midan’ (‘Art Is a Square’), in Cairo’s Abdeen Square in April 2011, organised by the Independent Artists Coalition. The coalition itself was initiated by Culture Resource, an Egyptian non-governmental organisation with regional reach that built the first stage and provided sound equipment during the original demonstrations in Tahrir. Since April 2011, the coalition has organised monthly arts festivals in cities throughout Egypt. Protest songs, accompanied by music videos, have also proliferated. Some have become hugely popular and are downloadable from the web.
Artists have captured civic space in other ways. Egyptian communities are now awash with graffiti and wall art that changes on a daily basis, featuring portraits and names of victims of violence. Striking examples include larger-than-life portraits of demonstrators blinded or killed by snipers in November 2011. The deaths of seventy-five football fans in Port Said on 1st February 2012 launched another wave of memorial wall art.
The larger political conflict is mirrored in struggles over graffiti and wall art. Perhaps the best-known image, produced by Egyptian artist Mohamed Ganzeer, featured a black and white tank facing off against a bicyclist balancing a tray of bread on his head. Following the death of more demonstrators, it was updated in January 2012 by other artists to depict red blood squirting out from under the tank’s tracks and a row of demonstrators facing the tank with their hands up in the air. Within days, members of Badr Team 1, a pro-SCAF civilian group, painted over elements offensive to the military. Around the same time, to mark the first anniversary of the January 25th Revolution, Ganzeer and other artists declared the week leading up to the anniversary to be ‘Mad Graffiti Week’.
Graffiti artists also left their imprint on parliamentary election signage. SCAF waited until too late – just days before the onset of parliamentary elections – to issue a decree prohibiting leaders of the former ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) from running for seats. So activists took matters into their own hands, splashing the word feloul (remnant) across campaign posters and banners throughout Egypt. The Facebook group Emsek Feloul (Catch a Remnant) was created to ‘out’ former NDP members by listing their names and documenting where they were running for office. Before long, a counter-revolutionary Facebook group, Feloul and Proud, emerged.
Egypt is in the midst of an unfinished transition. The political struggle is reflected in a running contest over place names, graffiti and memorials through which protagonists in the struggle proclaim their positions and keep score. This is reminiscent of timeworn practices in Egypt, where pharaohs removed or appropriated monuments constructed by their predecessors, and where ancient Christians and Muslims chiselled away or deconstructed statues and friezes honouring disputed gods. In a contemporary re-enactment of that practice, members of Al Nour Party covered a prominent statute in Alexandria of the mythical god Zeus during a March 2011 rally because it included nude mermaids.
What is largely missing in discussions about the formation and representation of historical memory is the pedagogic value of featuring dark elements of Egypt’s past. One example is revealing: laying down guidelines to revise history textbooks, the Ministry of Education decided to remove all references to the dominant role of the ruling National Democratic Party during the Mubarak regime. According to one education consultant involved in the rewrites, some drafts were rejected because they did not follow this guideline, suggesting that eradication, not reinterpretation, of historical memory continues to serve as a tool of political ascendancy.
Egyptians have plenty of opportunities to preserve and reinterpret memory of the Mubarak regime by keeping physical reminders of the old regime in place. In downtown Cairo, the iconic National Democracy Party headquarters was destroyed in the early days of the uprising. It and other ruined state buildings could be converted into historic site museums to help future generations to remember and grapple with the Mubarak regime’s abuse of power. There has been limited discussion about this. But in the present political climate the utility of preserving and interpreting the memory of unsavoury chapters in Egyptian contemporary history, rather then largely erasing them from the official historical record, remains highly controversial.
What has fundamentally changed is who narrates history. Some have called the uprising in Egypt the ‘Facebook Revolution’. While it is easy to exaggerate the role of digital technologies and platforms in fostering the Arab Spring, these tools have democratised the formation and projection of alternative historical narratives. Memory can fade quickly, but ordinary people are keeping memory alive by using digital technologies to generate, preserve and convey their personal stories, often at odds with official narratives projected by officials and state media. In the absence of any state-sponsored efforts to commemorate victims of the uprising, civil society initiatives have become the primary mechanisms through which Egyptians are honouring victims and pushing a change agenda.
Longer versions of this article were published by Middle East Policy, Vol. XIX, No. 2, Summer 2012 and by Jadaliyya on June 22nd, 2012. The author wishes to thank Nora Soliman for her comments on the article and the Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Centre for its support of the author’s research
is a visiting scholar at the American University in Cairo, where she is conducting research on Egyptian views about justice and accountability in post-Mubarak Egypt. She holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Politics from Columbia University.
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
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