No one can quite recall how the death of Khaled Saeed, exactly four years ago today, became a transformative moment in the landscape of activism in Egypt.
That June 6, I intercepted the news from an Alexandrian lawyer. I was on news shift and these are usually hectic hours for a reporter, trying to find out which newsworthy tragedy to prioritize and write about. In a single day, citizens die in road accidents, of torture in police stations, of medical negligence in hospitals or under the rubble of collapsed buildings. In a single day, state oppression unfolds in both visible and invisible forms. Which of these tragedies become an icon of our battles is determined by the arbitrariness of our own emotions and biases.
What we choose to highlight is the story that manages to permeate our built-up numbness and that is a personal experience, irrespective of the level of atrocity involved. This is how many of us chose to focus on Saeed’s case. It started from an individual moment of empathy that preceded its becoming a collective moment.
Some argued that it was class bias that made Saeed’s story travel robustly through our consciousness and our ability to master communication tools. Saeed hails from a middle class background in the coastal city of Alexandria. His image, smiling and comfortably posing before a camera with a casual hood, was quickly interpreted as a class definer that made it easy for the thousands of us staring at our computer screens to feel that we could be next. State oppression was no longer reserved for the poor. I don’t recall this being necessarily my own experience, but class bias can be invisible, and we have to recognize this.
Others spoke of age, for Saeed was 28 when he was killed in a country with a young majority. “Youth,” an elusive category that would later be constantly referenced to delineate game changers: the frontiers of revolution and the boycotters of election. I don’t recall an affinity to Saeed’s case because of his age either, but his youthfulness cannot be sidelined when trying to understand the widespread outrage by his brutal death and the ensuing mobilization.
For whatever reason, it wasn’t long before this individual reaction to Saeed’s death became a collective experience. Lawyers called other lawyers to join the case. Journalists informed other journalists about the latest updates. Activists started mobilizing for action. Posts, statuses and images rippled through the virtual world to render Saeed’s death more than just a common occurrence in Egypt’s police state. An iconic image of a collage of Saeed’s smiling photo next to another of his deformed face following police torture, an indelible motto (“We are all Khaled Saeed”), and other expressions of personal outrage made the case known online and offline.
(A mural of Saeed, courtesy of the ‘We Are All Khaled Said’ Facebook page)
Back then, we managed to resist boredom by defying the normalcy of oppression. But the thrust of momentum behind the movement remains inexplicable, despite attempts by pundits and researchers to ascribe reasons for it. Was it affinity by class? Was it affinity by age? To me, the reasoning remains opaque and it is perhaps in these unspoken sensibilities that some hope lies.
It is also in resisting some of the reasoning bestowed upon our actions that some hope lies as well. While there is a measure of truth in some of this reasoning, there is also a lot of elusiveness, an unknown that is yet to be deciphered to understand how the multitude of individualities decides to produce a nationwide act of resistance.
In remembering the day today, Amr Ezzat, the renowned writer and narrator of our generation, writes that the day of Saeed’s death, he was on his way back from a meditation trip away from the news, in the coastal town of Rashid. Upon opening his Facebook page, he found photos of a young Saeed circulating virally. Before reading the news, he thought it was the image of a young Mohamed ElBaradei, who had just returned to Egypt, fueling thousands into another hope for activism. What made an association in Ezzat’s head between Saeed and ElBaradei remains unknown, beyond perhaps a less elusive desire for change, a desire that spoke in the form of imagination that day.
Today also, Alexandrian activist Mahienour al-Massry, in prison serving a two-year sentence for protesting against persisting impunity in Saeed’s case, sent us a letter. In the letter she smuggled out of prison, she wrote that her time with other female inmates is a microcosm of her time in wider society outside her prison cell.
Many of Mahienour’s inmates are serving sentences for signing bad checks. They are mostly poor housewives and single breadwinners operating in a context where indebtedness is their only survival mechanism. None of these women’s struggles are iconized, even though they are the faces of state violence – albeit structural violence, which we have grown to internalize and normalize.
For Mahienour, one of the youth on the forefront of activism for the Saeed case, class oppression is the ultimate struggle. For her, class or age may not have been the main motivation for her solidarity with Saeed and yet she inspires so many others. She presents us a different possibility for activism, beyond the closed verdicts of successes and failures associated with how our revolution is traditionally analyzed. She reminds us that activism is a one-time choice, beyond which we have no choice but to continue to walk a path with no pre-determined convictions regarding the destination.
(Mahienour al-Massry, courtesy of the Free Mahienour Facebook page)
By realizing this when we call and pressure for Mahienour’s and other activists’ release today, we consciously carve unceasing paths for revolt beyond our prevalent sense of defeat and beyond what we think we know.