It was around this time of the year, in 2011, that we met Bassem Mohsen. A battle between protesters and security was raging near the Cabinet building. People were standing up to show their anger over the violent break-up of their sit-in after the appointment of the pro-military government.
Bassem had an eye patch. He lost his left eye during the November 2011 Mohamed Mahmoud clashes, of which the Cabinet violence between police and youth was an extension. It was a sniper’s bullet that took his eye.
On that day in late 2011, near the Cabinet, amid frantic running, tear gas and birdshots, Bassem stepped forward to say hi. He was confident and smiling. It was one of those fleeting intermissions during Egypt’s performance-like violence. Bassem was carrying a pink bag and was starting to tell us what his plan was for the day.
He didn’t intend to go back home to Suez, one of the forgotten cradles of the revolution. One of us was about to give him some advice, to ask whether or not he should maybe go home before he lost another eye. But his tired yet defiant smile silenced us.
His plan was to find a “revolutionary friend” to sleep over with. Bassem often came to Cairo and slept wherever he could. He was a day migrant in search of a revolution in Cairo, and elsewhere.
The intermission ended when we were caught up in a wave of people running against a charging group of soldiers. Instinctively, Bassem tried to provide cover for us. But as the chaos separated us, he moved towards the frontline and we moved away.
Thoughts about our chance meeting with Bassem that day were overtaken by other events and memories. But we did not forget him.
We remembered him again when he left us this Sunday, when his brain didn’t survive the live ammo that hit him during clashes between protesters and the police on Friday in Suez.
His death brought back the other encounters. One of us had met Bassem earlier, in July 2011. He was with a crowd from Suez that was carrying the city’s flag. Bassem was the youngest, at just 19 or 20. He hesitantly said he had worked in a factory, but no longer, not since the start of the revolution. He had taken part in the first protests that rocked Suez on January 26, one of the first actions from the margins that made the revolution a much larger business than just Cairo.
Bassem witnessed death for the first time and, shortly after, hitched a ride with a group going to Cairo. They felt change would happen from there, there where they would “sit on the hearts of the military until they listen to the demands of the revolution.”
On that day Bassem was looking after his friend Mohamed, who had lost his eye during the January protests. He looked up to Mohamed for the price he had paid for freedom, only to pay the same price himself, a few weeks later, and a much higher one, just two years later.
Even after Bassem lost his eye, he remained in high spirits. He seemed stronger, as if he had grown in stature, that revolutionary stature of pride for being part of it all.
A few months later, he went missing, leaving behind a slip of paper with the phone number of one of these authors (Elmeshad). When a woman found the bag with the paper slip, she called the number, in order to hand in the bag, for perhaps Bassem could be located. We learned later that he was in military detention, and then that he had been pardoned by then-President Mohamed Morsi.
Around that time, Bassem’s friend Ramy, also from Suez, shook his head at the mention of Bassem, lamenting the impossibility of controlling him. Like others who knew Bassem well, he expressed a mixture of love, compassion and bemusement toward the young revolutionary.
Like the few left on the margins of a conflict that has reduced Egypt’s polity to the generals versus the Brothers, Bassem didn’t want either of them. “We didn’t have a revolution so that we could still be under the foot of the military or the police, or whomever. As I saw from the Brothers in Suez, they’re not interested in going all the way, but that’s what I’m doing,” he once said.
Even his death on Sunday was traded in the power struggle he protested against. Because he was shot during in a protest mostly organized by Brotherhood supporters against the police, both sides are now pointing at each other as being responsible for his death.
Attempting to capture the importance of Bassem’s death, activist Rasha Azab wrote how his story is the best abstraction of the revolution at large: “An injury in January, a lost eye in Mohamed Mahmoud, a military trial in Morsi’s time and finally, a bullet in the head.”
For Bassem, the revolution, in its more basic configuration of justice and dignity, was a continuing business. It was a dream, and he labored for it. Deflecting any question of returning to his factory job, he would say, “No, no, when God wills and all of this calms down.”
Today, we can no longer forget him.