The Mandatory Act of Remembering, or, Ten Years Arab SpringDoor Maha El Hissy, op Thu May 20 2021 21:00:00 GMT+0000
The 25th of January 2021 marked the beginning of the new semester at the university where I teach. The hectic neoliberal happenings in academia overshadowed and outshone the rituals of celebrating the events that this day calls to mind. Refraining from festivities and other commemorative rituals, however, does not equal forgetting. Ten years earlier, this date marked the beginning of mass protests in Egypt. This day was chosen particularly to overwrite another ceremony, Egypt’s National Police Day – a public holiday dedicated, with all the absurdity this involves, to honouring policeman. The call to hold mass demonstrations on that day a decade ago was meant to convert the significance of this day into a protest against police brutality.
Perhaps one could argue that anniversaries are meant to recall things to collective memory on an international level, and to push into visibility that which has not been forgotten locally. It feels like marking a task on a to-do list as complete.
Cultural and literary scholar Aleida Assmann mentions anniversaries as a chance to participate in cultural memory, thus transcending individual reminders and tributes to collective remembrance at the level of the nation. On the 25th of January 2021, on the days that preceded and those that followed this date, I concluded that anniversaries and jubilees are meant to push us towards a culture and politics of oblivion for the rest of the year. In Germany and the USA, for example, I came across articles or verbiage around public events in 2021 that described their purpose as taking stock ‘Ten years after the Arab Spring,’ implying that it was time to remember something we never actually forgot. Perhaps one could argue that anniversaries are meant to recall things to collective memory on an international level, and to push into visibility that which has not been forgotten locally. It feels like performing remembrance or marking a task on a to-do list as complete. As a subject and researcher with Egyptian heritage who writes in Germany and in the UK, while I have strong ties to the place I was born, I realise that this a-synchronic remembrance is part of the postmigrant condition: oscillating between commitment to not forgetting on a regional level, and the predominant Western pace of remembrance that pushes certain narratives into mainstream visibility while consigning others to oblivion, keeping the upper hand over the timing of those memories.
Days and events that appeared otherwise unremarkable in my European surroundings will always be connected to my personal story of the Arab Spring. The bourgeois surroundings of the streets of Munich, and perhaps most parts of Germany, perceived the happenings in Egypt as alien. The provinciality of history and remembrance has often shaped the notion of Germanness – although, on some days, our chants during protests in Germany denounced the fact that Egypt tops the list of German weapons exports recipients. We meant to call attention to German involvement in the events of the Arab Spring. The Egyptian police apparatus received top-notch equipment after the uprising in Egypt. Everything made in Germany. On other days, our slogans targeted the German government, especially their biased support of an oppressive regime, as long as it provided stability in what is considered an explosive region. Seemingly unconnected hi/stories are intertwined, especially when it comes to the country that has always been expected to play a crucial role in preserving the balance between Israel and Palestine, thus supporting Germany’s coming to terms with this part of its own past.
This text, paradoxically, is an attempt and at the same time a struggle to write with and against the imperative of remembrance.
Since the beginning of the revolution at least, the banality of ordinary everyday life has vanished for many of us who were directly or indirectly involved in these historical events. This text, paradoxically, is an attempt and at the same time a struggle to write with and against the imperative of remembrance. It pays tribute to the memory on what seems to be an insignificant early summer day in May. On an individual level, however, around this time of the year in 2011, on an allegedly insignificant day, I was in Cairo, joining a mass protest and other post-revolutionary activities, including painting a road for bikes in the city’s district of Korba, just across from the presidential palace. It felt like reclaiming streets that never belonged to us in the first place. The memories are engraved everywhere and on so many days. On the 29th of November 2014, some of my family members and friends were gathered in France for my sister’s wedding. Everyone was getting ready for the celebration when I heard on the radio in the background that Egyptian judges had dropped all charges against Mubarak. The private and the political have always been intertwined, at least for those of us who are postcolonial subjects. A few days earlier, we were celebrating at a bachelorette party, among many other pre-wedding ceremonies, and again, in my personal memory, those days were linked to political events of the revolution. It was around the same time three years before that date that the so-called second wave of the revolution took place. The violent actions of November 2011 in Mohamed Mahmoud Street were brutally suppressed by the Egyptian riot police. The street became then also known as Sharie Al-Oyoun (The Street of Eyes) in reference to all those who lost their sight after snipers shot them straight in the eyes. Its walls were covered with graffiti documenting the street battle; they were removed afterwards, but the revolution is forever inscribed in body injuries and impairment. How can we forget? How can memories of oppressive regimes be tied to days and dates?
Political prisoners, however, are the main reason behind my objection to tying the memory of the Arab Spring to a certain day, date, or even year. Reviving the memory of certain days of the year feels like a betrayal of those who are behind bars and are paying the price for everyone else.
How do political prisoners remember the events of the Arab Spring? How do they perceive time?
This brings me to another reference to the postmigrant, paradoxical postcolonial condition: the striving for emancipation from occupation, with all the different meanings it entails, while at the same time recognising all those mechanisms of dependency that force us to search for international pressure to apply to oppressive regimes. I cannot deny that a large part of my support for President-Elect Biden was fuelled by the flickers of hope his election brought for political prisoners in Egypt. I hoped also for the U.S. to distance itself from Donald Trump’s ‘favourite dictator.’ I lost a few friends on the day the results of the elections in the United States were announced, as I cheered in mere pathos for the outcome.
‘Hope, like despair, is a treason. But also, like despair, it’s a normal human weakness.’ I recall the words from a joint letter written in a prison cell by Alaa Abd El Fattah and Ahmed Douma, both detainees of all Egyptian regimes. The two prisoners remain behind bars today. How do political prisoners remember the events of the Arab Spring? How do they perceive time? How does the pace of remembrance feel to them? Are they honouring any memories of those events ten years ago? I realise that forgetting is a privilege, not a choice.