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Opinion

Egypt's dead - dehumanised and disregarded

As the death toll in Egypt rises, the condemnations of other nations are strangely muted.

Last Modified: 25 Aug 2013 13:51
Hodan Yusuf

Hodan Yusuf-Pankhurst is a freelance multimedia journalist and a mediator and trainer in conflict resolution.
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"It is beyond ironic that the former dictator Mubarak has been cleared for release while Morsi, the country's first democratically elected president is still detained," writes [Reuters]

Over 1,000 people have died in Egypt since August 14, and are the result of the "worst mass unlawful killings in the country's modern history", according to Human Rights Watch. If those 1,000 were from the West, would the international narrative be any different?

Last April in Boston, three people lost their lives on a day when everyone was just trying to enjoy a marathon. Condolences came in from across the world and even from space, while Egypt has received very little. The same heads of state who poured with grief over those unjustified killings in Boston are the same heads of state who continue to do business with Egypt, disregarding the apparent bloodlust of this interim military regime. They continue to support the regime financially and militarily as the authorities continue to act with impunity killing protesters, including the slaughter of at least three dozen prisoners in a van. These people were reportedly among those detained following the raid on the Fateh Mosque. The exact number of dead and the way they were killed remains unclear, but witnesses have documented signs of torture and apparent burns on the bodies. Even prisoners of war have rights.

Egypt court orders Mubarak released

So what has gone wrong? The Egyptian media - both state and private - overwhelmingly support the interim military regime. Many TV outlets deemed too Islamic or critical were shut down immediately after the coup. This means that the majority of ordinary Egyptians have the unchallenged running narrative of the State beamed into their TVs and radios and printed in their newspapers. If recent history teaches us anything, it is that media in times of conflict can become the facilitator for mass bloodshed and war crimes. 

A familiar trend

During the genocide in Rwanda, the radio station RTLM called on the Hutus to kill the Tutsis, referring to them as "cockroaches ". Repeated over and over until it became truth, it ended up being the mantra of a genocide that claimed the lives of over 800,000 Tutsis.  Dehumanisation, as a precursor to genocide, requires a deliberate and planned motive that utilises message proliferation mediums at hand.  

Twenty years later, in Egypt today, the word is not cockroaches , but " terrorists ", a loaded term used to tranish those who have Islamic political views.

Egyptian television often carries straps that say "Egypt Fighting Terrorism" and programmes often break into English translation for the benefit of any English-speaking viewers. The coup leaders and the supportive media machine have seemingly resorted to the language of terrorism. A spokesman for the Egyptian interim government declared that Egypt is at war with terrorism, extremism, theological and religious fascism. Labelling people and their grievance as terrorism is dismissive and even removes the burden of responsibility from the authorities to deal with them humanely and respectfully.

This is inherited from the Western global "war on terror", which has served well to label, dehumanise then cast aside human rights in the name of fighting terrorism. In Egypt, protesters exercising their constitutional rights were conveniently transformed into terrorists. This powerful and chilling account from Guardian journalist Patrick Kingsley describes how the terrorist narrative translated into live bullets and attacks on unarmed protesters - and even the doctors treating them. His account opens with a police lieutenant's live television interview outside Fateh Mosque. The policeman reloaded his machine gun while saying, "The problem is, these people are terrorists." The journalist goes on to describe the heartbreaking scenes of mourning relatives trying to admit the rotting corpses of their dead loved ones into the morgue while the police reportedly refused to sign off their corpses as murder. Truth and humanity, he said, were in short supply. It seems once labelled terrorists, even the dead are denied due process.

Changing language

The selective mourning of the international community teaches an entire generation that some people matter more than others. Some dead are dignified while others labelled, then disregarded. Unimportant. Too different to defend. A generation of Muslim children around the world in places like Egypt, Syria, Palestine and Yemen could grow up believing that their people, and by extension, they, are less deserving of the dignity afforded to others. Hard to avoid when the empty rhetoric does not reach them before the drones and bullets do.

History will no doubt judge this current regime and all its domestic and international allies harshly while they continue on the path of indiscriminate killing and the brutal crackdown on all they deem to be obstacles to their totalitarian rule.

It is beyond ironic that the former dictator Mubarak has been released while Morsi, the country's first democratically elected president, is still detained. The spiritual guide of the Muslim Brotherhood and other senior figures have also been arrested. Even ElBaradei is being charged with a crime, punishment for daring to resign when the bloodshed exceeded his personal tolerance levels.

Language is very important, especially in times of conflict. And in this turmoil, Egypt has begun with a new thesaurus of its own. A contentious thesaurus, where words like coup  and democracy, mean very different things to different people and governments. However, the brutal fact of thousands of civilians dying at the hands of security forces should never be lost in translation.

Hodan Yusuf-Pankhurst is a freelance multimedia journalist and a mediator and trainer in conflict resolution. She has a diploma in Journalism and an MSc in Conflict Resolution and Mediation Studies from the University of London.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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