The injustices of November: Remember or forget?

November marked the anniversary of Mohamed Mahmoud, remembered as an epic and triumphant struggle by the revolutionaries of Egypt. I woke up smelling teargas and hearing the sound of motorcycles carrying the wounded. Such “reliving” of events is common and many who fought in Mohamed Mahmoud will experience similar memories: odors, taste, sounds, visuals and even bodily sensations.

To many, the reliving of the events of Mohamed Mahmoud is nostalgia that triggers intense and mixed emotions. Even if most emotions triggered by this memory are feelings of triumph, we would expect some post-Mohamed Mahmoud blues. As the brain struggles to hold on to the positive memories, it simultaneously battles the injustices and losses it has endured.

Although the acquittals of Hosni Mubarak, Habib al-Adly and his aides was expected, the intense feelings of injustice, sadness and disappointment took many by surprise. November 29 witnessed the re-living of the bloody events of January 28, which led many back to Tahrir Square despite there being no organized calls for protests. Two Egyptians died protesting injustice that night and unfortunately their deaths will probably be no more accounted for than their fellow martyrs, also let down by the justice system. For many, especially families of martyrs seeking due justice, this date now marks another traumatic event breeding more feelings of injustice with their accompanying psychological repercussions.

Memory is a major factor in maintaining sound mental health. Just as it can be used for stress relief through for example, recalling that “happy place”; if subjected to a traumatic event, memory can be the reason why we become “present prisoners of the past.”

The National Institute of Mental Health groups symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) into three main categories: re-experiencing, avoidance and hyper-arousal.

Re-experiencing is the repeated reliving of the event. This includes flashbacks, frightening thoughts, recurrent memories or dreams and physical reactions to situations which remind one of the event. This group of symptoms is directly related to memory, causing the event to appear to be happening in the present rather than being in narrative memory form.

Avoidance symptoms stem from the desire to escape similar situations. Survivors might avoid places, people, events, or objects that remind them of the traumatic experience as they try to escape the memory.

Hyper-arousal symptoms on the other hand are all physiological. They include difficulty concentrating or falling asleep, being easily startled, feeling tense or “on edge,” as well as angry outbursts.

These symptoms can make it difficult for victims of PTSD to complete normal daily tasks as they struggle either with reliving the memory or trying to avoid it. It can also lead to revenge fantasies, more violence and therefore more trauma – especially in the absence of closure or retribution for this injustice.

Situations that remind the individual of traumatic events can trigger excessive release of stress hormones and over-activation of the brain’s amygdala which further augments stress hormone release. The result is severe emotional distress – racing thoughts, anger and hyper-vigilance. When it comes to the most traumatic events in our lives, we walk a fine line between remembering too much and remembering too little.

“I often get visuals of my rape, I can still smell his sweat on me still. I sometimes see myself crucified naked in Tahrir Square as people pass me by banging their drums to the tune of ‘Teslam al-Ayadi’ without any empathy to my raped crucified body on display. Election day was a strong trigger for my reliving and I only allowed myself out of the house when I heard that many youth boycotted. Apart from reliving my trauma, I also get revenge fantasies. The feeling of injustice is an obstacle to my healing and getting over my PTSD as there is no closure in sight. I am expected to get on with my life while everything around me reminds me of my assailants and how they conquered the nation as they conquered my body.”

These were the words of a female activist who survived a state-sponsored sexual assault. She will not be pressing charges as she has no faith in the judicial system, in addition to fearing retribution and more abuse. She is struggling to heal but despite the despair around her she is fighting for her soul and integrity to survive. She awaits a collective justice and freedom as she knows many share her prison cell of injustice.

On August 18, 2013 and after being detained for three days, 37 detainees including Sherif Seyam were killed when a teargas canister was fired into the vehicle transporting them from Heliopolis Police Station to Abu Zaabal Prison.

Seyam’s mother once told me that what deepens the wound and keeps the trauma fresh is that her son was labeled a “terrorist” – thus, someone who deserved such treatment. Retribution is the only justice she can accept. However, such closure is not expected in light of a general consensus that the death of suspected Muslim Brotherhood affiliates is justified. Seyam was burned alive and gassed to death inside a state vehicle carrying 45 men. He was effectively sentenced to the gas chamber without trial. His death was celebrated by many.

On March 18, the vice-warden of Heliopolis Police Station received a 10-year prison sentence and three other police officers were handed a one-year suspended sentence each. However, this verdict was annulled four months later. For families like Seyam’s, this means healing is unattainable.

Since memory is indeed key to healing and moving on, the question we as a wounded society face now is how to tackle it therapeutically. Must we attend to memory through retribution, or reparation to reach closure? Or should we simply assume that forgetting injustices endured will help healing?

Should we remember, or should we remember to forget?

There are numerous arguments as to why the past should not be explored, investigated or uncovered. One could claim that uncovering the past can be more psychologically damaging than leaving it undisturbed. Another argument that warrants serious consideration is that the past can be manipulated and reinterpreted so that it can be used as a weapon.

However, the importance of acknowledging wrongdoing and uncovering the truth (and therefore the possibility of achieving justice) is commonly perceived as healing for survivors. Apart from the many arguments against remembering, the act of forgetting – even if enforced or even encouraged by the state – is not in fact achievable given the continuation of injustices, the unresolved ongoing conflict and the constant reminders to which we are subjected. So, perhaps instead of asking whether to remember or forget, it is more psychologically beneficial to explore “how one should remember” when forgetting is not an option.

Remembering: A path to closure and healing?

“We are meant to be a part of the process of the healing of our nation, of our people, all of us, since every South African has to some extent or other been traumatized. We are a wounded people…We all stand in need of healing.” (Archbishop Desmond Tutu in his opening address to the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission on December 16, 1999.)

In the context of providing amnesty for perpetrators while nevertheless granting the victims the chance to seek some closure, truth commissions have emerged as a standard institution to document the violent past. Although The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) has become the model of how to “work through” a violent past to “heal the nation,” many blanket amnesties have been granted to perpetrators – as happened in Argentina, Chile, Guatemala, Brazil and some African countries.

Reparations are a means by which truth commissions and similar processes seek to achieve national and individual reconciliation. Reparation is not retribution, which is to exact punishment in return for crimes. Unlike retribution, reparation deals with putting right what you have done by some other means than punishment.

Symbolic acts of reparation, such as the material act of payment, can play an important role in processes of opening space for bereavement, addressing trauma and symbolic closure. The state, through reparation, acknowledges and recognizes the individual’s suffering and places it within a new officially sanctioned history of trauma.

The pursuit of reparation can be empowering for some survivors, allowing them to overcome feelings of isolation and pain through a public process. But could the unsuccessful pursuit of a remedy leave a person in a worse position, mentally and emotionally, than if they had done nothing? This question arises in particular when seeking judicial or quasi-judicial remedies especially in states that deny they committed such atrocities in the first place.

In the case of truth commissions, which primarily serve collective goals of national reconciliation rather than individual goals of redress, this truth–telling – although it may have a reparative value for many survivors – may also be traumatic in its own right.

Unfortunately, no matter how well meaning, all reparation strategies face the same intractable problem. Acknowledgement, apology, recognition, material assistance, a perpetrator’s confession and even reburials can never bring back the dead or even be guaranteed to ameliorate all the levels of psychological pain suffered by a survivor.

The trauma and accompanying sense of injustice, anger and hurt, which lie in the depths of the survivor’s psyche, are immeasurable. Furthermore, recovery from trauma is obstructed by the unlikelihood of justice in many societies in transition – a current problem, and a feared future problem for survivors of atrocities in Egypt.

For some, on the other hand, healing via remembering or even salvation is in the seeking of retribution and sometimes revenge. If the desire for vengeance grips the survivor, then accepting reparations can be experienced by the survivor as a disrespectful act that betrays the loss they have endured. In essence, rituals of respect (such as retribution through the courts) and remembering can be broken by reparations, just as they can in some cases serve as a symbol of mending.

Nietzsche is one of the few philosophers to have asserted the centrality of revenge in the pursuit of justice: “The spirit of revenge: my friends, that up to now, has been mankind’s chief concern: and where there was suffering, there was always supposed to be punishment.” Practically, the rest of Western philosophy has denounced revenge and distinguished rational law and justice from revenge. If no retribution is in sight – since states committing atrocities are either always acquitted or never brought to justice – then revenge becomes a fantasy, as described by the many traumatized individuals I have encountered. This is a reality our society needs to deal with and perhaps even fear and try to prevent through allowing space for justice in Egypt.

It seems there is now a struggle for the collective memory of our wounded Egypt. The regime tries to force us into forgetting and consistently aborts any chance of remembering correctly so our wounds can heal as a society and so that the breeding of eternal violence ends. Following Mubarak’s acquittal, the media has posed a question, seemingly without irony: “Who killed the protesters in Egypt?” Clearly this is the regime’s latest attempt to manipulate the collective memory of Egyptians.

It seems our only connection to the notion of reconciliation, or of healing (dubbed “transitional justice”), is having a ministry with that name. The minister will not even waste his time or effort in proposing a plan for retribution or at least reparation so we can transition and heal, since he is fully invested in defending and trying to clean Egypt’s official human rights record. He denies all atrocities and blatantly states that his mere existence and post is the strongest evidence to have ever existed that Egypt does in fact respect human rights and is on the path to transitional justice.

George Orwell believed that “whoever controls the past controls the future,” and that uncovering the past allows for its manipulation to meet present political and social agendas. Remembering and its use (and abuse) cannot be separated from the present social and political concerns, and could serve the interests of one sector within society. The Ministry of Transitional Justice, along with the rest of the regime, is fighting to manipulate history and it is for this very reason that remembering should be done correctly and collectively.

The act of remembering, of preserving the collective memory in the face of the regime’s attempts to revise, manipulate and even wipe out our history is now of the utmost importance. The fight for public space, graffiti, memorials, documentation of all events, aiding NGOs to document violations and using the Internet to make sure nothing can be erased or manipulated are among the many ways we can remember correctly in order to counter the fictional narrative the regime tries to enforce. 

Only through engaging in the process of remembering can we enter into the socially contested field of the past. This way we can fight for developing creative and constructive collective memories that are functional to as many people within the society as possible. In order to reach closure and healing we will need to endure the memory and even hold on to it even if dark and traumatic.

Through remembering correctly, we shall prevail. Fighting for our nation’s memory is our only path to possible salvation, the day justice will be our mandate and reality.


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