Blog: When pictures are worth a thousand woes

Over a year ago, a picture of a young man bludgeoned to death sent shockwaves through the country. The picture – almost always found in tandem with another picture of the young man before his death – started a wave of protests, and the fate of this young man, Khaled Saeed, would be mentioned as one of the main reasons for the 25 January uprising that overthrew an authoritarian president and his coterie.

More than a year later, with a president overthrown and thousands paying with their lives in the process, and we find in front of us a set of equally shocking images. However, this time the reaction is not the same, the anger is not the same. Yes, the long arm of the state did attempt to discredit Saeed and dismiss his brutal death at the hands of two policemen, but that only inflamed passions. And while the large majority may have been disinterested in the entire affair, it did inspire some to take to the streets for the first time.

On 9 October a march made up mainly of Coptic Christians, but also including Muslim supporters and journalists, made its way to the television building in Maspero. What happened next was a crime so brutal that the pictures of the bodies in the morgue tell a story in and of themselves. As is well known, military APCs ran over protesters. The sight of flattened corpses lying in the morgue of the Coptic Hospital is a gruesome reminder that Egyptians are still far from being able to demand their rights.

One of the searing images from that night is Vivian Magdy in the morgue, clutching tight the hands of her dead fiancé Michael Mosad, her eyes teary and an expression of deep anguish on her face. Like Khaled Saeed, that picture would be shown in tandem with another earlier one of the two together at their engagement, posed, proud and smiling. There are also the before-and-after pictures of Mina Daniel, smiling, lank-haired in Tahrir. And then later him lying on the floor, the blood flowing freely beneath him. These are just two examples.

There was outrage at the events of 9 October; there was anger and demands for justice. But there was also obfuscation, a muddying of the narrative and a refusal on the part of many to believe that the military could do this to its own citizens. There was the role of the state media, which – in echoes of 25 January – was running an instantaneous counter-narrative that managed to convince some in their homes to head out and defend their armed forces.

There was reaction, a smattering of protests and marches, a vigil in Talaat Harb Square. But in the post-revolutionary fervor that we are supposedly living in, you’d have thought that an incident such as this would have elicited a much stronger reaction, a more visceral one to correlate with the images. Yet it didn’t happen. The power of the images is there, no doubt, but harrowing as they were, they did not seem to move dissenters as much as Khaled Saeed did.

There could be many reasons for this, among them the strong emphasis on pushing the state narrative, coupled with the refusal on the part of many to even believe that the military would do this. There is, of course, the angle that they were Coptic Christians, with all that that entails in our less-than-exemplary sectarian history. So instead, we get the usual band of villains who are assigned culpability. The mysterious foreign hands, the remnants of the regime, the thuggish protesters of Tahrir. Someone else, always someone else.

And we have 27 victims. And we have the pictures that tell a story in and of themselves, of how they died. It’s clear from the markings on their bodies, the injuries, the horrors of their final throes and how they ended up on the floor of a hospital morgue on Ramsis Street.

What we don’t have is justice, accountability and a taking of the perpetrators to task. Maybe there will be a day where we will look back at the images of those who died in Maspero and see how they inspired people to demand their rights and the rights of those who died, much like Khaled Saeed did.

And then to add grievous insult to bloody injury, the case of Essam Atta emerged. Atta was a 23-year-old who had been sentenced to two years imprisonment in a military trial. He was held in the notorious Tora Prison. His lawyers were headed to file an appeal for his case only to find him dead, a victim of torture. He had allegedly been tortured with the aid of a water pump, used to pump his insides out. In a macabre twist, the official position was that he had ingested drugs in a wrap, much like the accusation against Khaled Saeed, later proven false.

And we have now a new set of before-and-after pictures: Atta with his daughter in the first, and Atta’s body foaming at the mouth long after his heart stopped beating.

Only two days after Atta’s funeral was held in Tahrir Square, the military prosecutor announced the list of “inciters” of the Maspero violence of 9 October. Top of the list was the murdered, iconic Mina Daniel. For good measure, activist Alaa Abd El Fattah was detained for 15 days for refusing to be interrogated by the military prosecutor. His argument was that it was not a legitimate body to investigate a civilian. He is also being accused of incitement in the Maspero incident.

And so the fallout continues. Our collection of before-and-after pictures grows longer.

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