Several years ago I bought a book called The World’s Worst Atrocities and it did live up to its title for it traced the most shocking crimes committed by humans against their fellow inhabitants of the planet. It went back as far as the Mongol invasions, the extermination of the Aztecs, and the Spanish inquisition then moved to epochs seen as the bloodiest in the history mankind like Nazi Germany, Cambodia under Pol Pot, Kurdish genocide in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the Rwanda massacres, and many more. In the middle of all those horror stories, each of which sometimes haunted me for days to come, it struck me that two chapters in the book, one entitled “Reign of Terror” and the other “The Death of the Romanovs,” stood out and might have at the beginning looked quite irrelevant to the topic. Neither of them was about the out-and-out annihilation of a people or the razing invasion of a nation or the brutal silencing of an opposition. They were about two of history’s most important revolutions.
At the time when I got that book, I had read before about the French and the Bolshevik revolutions and I was aware that in both the noble cause and the quest for justice were marred by the amount of lives that were taken in the process and the bone-chilling eras that followed. However, placing those two events that are supposed to have changed the face history in a collection whose main focus is crimes against humanity made me look at the two revolutions from a very different perspective and suddenly I realized that, to me, the achievements they made may in many cases look much less than the horrendous acts they were engaged in, and that made me wonder if a revolution can really be self-destructive so that by time its name becomes associated with repression rather than freedom and bloodshed rather than lifesaving. Apparently so!
When the Egyptian revolution started, I was pleasantly startled to see that while we were all screaming at the top of our lungs that the regime has to go and while we were brimming with anger at decades of oppression and injustice, it was a 100% peaceful, unarmed protest and any spilt blood or lost lives was the doing of the security forces that were out to crush the rebellion by any possible, or impossible, means. Even at the times when protestors were attacked by swords and Molotov cocktails, they responded with stones and the whole world was left wondering about this uprising that has not yet been defined in history, one that amputates without shedding a drop of blood. The word “selmeya,” Arabic for peaceful, made headlines and became the slogan the world chose to single out this unprecedented species of rage that changed the meaning of a word commonly associated with rampant violence and countless casualties.
It comes naturally, therefore, that any discourse which contradicts this spirit would sound alarming even though it might make sense for other people. The ouster of the regime was done peacefully on the part of the protestors but as for the other party that would have gladly drowned the country in a blood bath had they been given the proper chance and enough time, scores were yet to be settled. A kind of communal vendetta ensued between the people who took part in or supported the revolution, not to mention had loved ones killed in the demonstrations, on one hand and the security forces involved in shooting at unarmed civilians and all former regime officials on the other hand. The revolutionaries made it very clear that ousting Mubarak was never the ultimate goal of the revolution, which will never be complete until all criminals are brought to justice whether for what they did during the protests or throughout the past three decades. This is an absolutely legitimate and indisputable demand and up till that point there was no problem.
The problem started when a comparison was made between the 18 days that took Egyptians to unseat a thirty-year-old dictatorship and the endless time it seems to be taking the government or the military or the judiciary or whoever is responsible to put all the culprits, on top of whom is the former president, behind bars. The outrage stirred by the delays was not only due to incompetence on the part of the relevant bodies as far as the purging process that is to rid the country of all “remnants” of the former regime is concerned and not only because of the innumerable conspiracy theories that started emerging about deals struck and money paid… etc., but also because the matter involved one of the most sensitive issues: the martyrs of the revolution.
The fact that the killers of protestors are still at large and some of them were even arrested then released amid rumors of attempts by several policemen to bribe the families of the deceased is considered an outright treason to the revolution and to the value of the blood that was spilt for it, says the revolutionaries. I can’t agree more. It is the rhetoric that followed later that I have a problem with. Ask yourself a very simple question: When the law does not bring you back what is inarguably your right, what do you do? One of two things: Some give up and others take the law into their hands. The second option sounds logical to all those who had loved ones murdered in cold blood by the security forces and who know both they and the deceased will never see a day of peace until they are properly avenged.
It is at this point that words which echo the horror of previous revolutions start coming to the surface. “I would kill those who killed my son with my own hands if the court doesn’t do so.” “The policeman who killed my brother has to be executed right here at the same place where he fired at him.” “All of them should hang in public so that everyone watches justice being served.” “Let all the executions take place in Tahrir.” There was even one incident last week when a man tried to disrupt a protest and actually fired a couple of shots in the air was about to be “executed”—that was the word the media used—by the protestors hadn’t it not been for the immediate intervention of the army. “Yes,” many people said. “He was about to shoot at them and they have the right to kill him.”
That reminded me of the first time I read Charles Dickens’ masterpiece A Tale of Two Cities and of how confused I was by the character of Madame Defarge who seeks a noble end through all the wrong means. I never miss any chance to declare my staunch objection to the capital punishment, which you now see on a whole lot of placards and hear in several protests, yet if this is how it is then there is nothing to do about except look for ways to tone down the new language that implies it will soon be the right of every citizen to inflict that punishment upon whoever he or she perceives as guilty of some crime or another. Doing that does not by any means entail blaming the potential vigilantes for a reaction typical of any human being that had undergone a similar tragedy for they have not taken this stance except after giving up on courts and trials and anything related to that law that proved unable to grant them the only solace they have left—seeing the murderers of their folks receive their due punishment.
It is the problem of those who are responsible for making sure this law is properly implemented—be that the Interior Ministry, the Higher Council of the Armed Forces, criminal or military courts, I don’t care—and bearing in mind that the slower they go, the more salt they are rubbing into the wounds of Egyptians—all of them and not just the ones who had a personal loss.
This is not just about the necessity of having each and every person who dared kill or injure a fellow Egyptian pay dearly for such an unforgivable offence, as important as that is. This is also about preserving the purity of a revolution that, I would say, put Gandhi to practice and gave an outstanding example of the miracles civil disobedience can do. We are a people whose only weapon was their love for their country and their determination to see it free and let us remain so.
Tahrir is no another Bastille and will never be and in the January 25 Revolution there is no place for guillotines and no summary shootings of Tsars. There is and will always be the slogan that begs to remain: “selmeya.”
(Sonia Farid, Ph.D., of Al Arabiya also teaches English Literature at Cairo University. She can be reached at: email@example.com)