Did Egypt protesters die in vain?

Relatives of those killed during the uprising say they are still awaiting justice, a year after the violence erupted.

Egypt martyrs


The waning days of January 2011 had been deemed the “days of rage” across Egypt, and they became just that for the family of 13-year-old Mohamed Fawzy Ashour when four bullets ended his life.

Just days after the start of the Egyptian uprising, the student-turned-protester with a crooked smile and dark, wavy hair joined the ranks of hundreds of thousands of people who would take to the streets in cities across the country, demanding an end to the 30-year rule of then-President Hosni Mubarak.

Amid the chaos and confusion – as police forces formally withdrew from the streets, leaving civilians to fend for themselves in an increasingly lawless atmosphere – the last words out of Ashour’s mouth were appeals for peace.

Ashour was an eighth grader when the uprising hit the city of Tanta, a bustling textile town 94km north of Cairo. The only son in a family of six children, he was waiting for his father, Hassan, to pick him up from a private lesson on January 29 when he decided to join the crowds in protest in the centre of the city.

When his father eventually spotted him, Ashour stood a few metres away, surrounded by friends, all chanting in unison: “Salmiyah, salmiyah!” “Peaceful, peaceful”.

“I wanted to go home, but he told me to stay for a while,” his father told Al Jazeera, recalling the events of a day now forever etched in his memory.

“We suddenly found riot police attacking us with tear gas. We were shot with the gas and our eyes were tearing up and he told me, ‘Ok, Dad, let’s go back home.’”

What the elder Ashour described next is a scene of utter chaos – hundreds of panicked protesters running in every direction, fleeing the sudden onslaught of not just tear gas, but what he said was live ammunition.

“We were 700 metres away from home and we were entering from a side street. We found the police chasing people and shooting them. And then Mohamed was shot,” his father said.

Clinging to life

Four bullets pierced the young boy’s body, the elder Ashour said, two entering the back of his head and two tearing into his shoulders.

Tahrir protesters shout slogans against SCAF and the field marshal during a rally to honour ‘martyrs’ in November in Tahrir [Al Jazeera]

Ashour was rushed to a nearby hospital where he clung to life with the help of a number of machines until he succumbed to his injuries four days later.

Nearly a year after the attack, Ashour’s father said he is still awaiting justice from the country’s military leaders, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), who he holds responsible for his son’s death.

“I demand SCAF bring justice to all those who died, including my son,” he said.

“We want our rights. We want fair trials. We are not dogs. They don’t deserve the title ruler,” he said angrily, his dark eyes watering slightly behind silver-rimmed eyeglasses.

“We want all the murderers put on trial so justice can be done and it will be fair,” he continued. “This is what I ask from every Egyptian and every world citizen and everybody out there: to stand for what’s right. These people who died are humans created by God.”

Justice slow to come

Ashour was one of an estimated 846 people killed in the first few days of the violence, according to the official toll released in April from the country’s health ministry.

Even after the fall of Mubarak – who stepped down on February 11, and is now on trial over the killings of protesters during the uprising – the violence against demonstrators by interior ministry and military forces has continued.

One protester was killed during an incident on April 9; 27 more were killed in October during clashes outside the state TV building; 45 were killed during November clashes and 17 were left dead following the latest bout of violence in December, said Heba Morayef, a Cairo-based researcher for Human Rights Watch, citing figures from the ministry of health.

Though some activists have disputed the tolls, giving higher numbers, Morayef said the figures are accurate based on what she had witnessed.

“Is the average activist safer now from arbitrary arrest or torture?

“In a demonstration are they safer from exessive use of force or illegal use of force? No”

– Heba Morayef, Human Rights Watch

“When Mubarak was still in power, the ministry of health was hiding death tolls, but in the immediate afermath they made the decision to play no part in hiding the tolls,” she told Al Jazeera.

Nearly a year after the first deaths, many of the families of those killed say justice has been slow to come. Morayef said that is unlikely to change in the near future.

“Is the average activist safer now [than last January] from arbitrary arrest or torture? In a demonstration are they safer from excessive use of force or illegal use of force? No. Will the judiciary protect them? No,” she said.

“Overall, it takes a long time to end abuse. What you haven’t seen is a political will to break with abuse of the past.

“We’ve seen time and time again how riot police lack training and have lack of command. In November, riot police were shooting rubber bullets at people’s heads instead of their feet. They haven’t actually changed practices or modes of conduct, which caused such a huge death toll in January.”

‘Your son has died’

The family of protester Mohamed Rabea blamed that “mode of conduct” for the death of their son in November.

In a sign of pent-up frustrations at the slow pace of reform in the country, Rabea was one of the thousands who filled the confines of Cairo’s Tahrir Square, protesting against what they saw as a failure of the military to deliver on the demands of the revolution and cede power to a civilian government.

What began as a peaceful demonstration on November 18 turned ugly a day later, when violence erupted as members of the much-loathed Central Security Forces entered the square to forcibly remove a few hundred people who had set up tents. Activists said the majority of people who had remained were families of the “martyrs” – protesters killed during the early days of the uprising.

Rabea had made Mohamed Mahmoud street, the stretch of pavement leading from the interior ministry to Tahrir, his second home for days. He stood his ground with several friends against security forces whose rubber bullets grazed his leg and stomach as protesters threw rocks and petrol bombs in retaliation.

Despite the threat of more injuries, Rabea would leave his job in Cairo at the end of every work day and head straight to Tahrir, his father, Rabea Nabil Shehata, told Al Jazeera.

“On November 20, he came from work and went to Tahrir. I called him at 11pm and I was asking ‘Why are you late, Mohammed?’ He told me, ‘I’m coming dad. I’m coming home because I’ve got work to do.’”

But Rabea did not make it home that night. About two hours later, a medic called the family and delivered the news.

“‘Your son has died and he’s at the morgue’,” his father recalled the ambulance driver telling him, without elaborating.

Shehata paused momentarily before continuing, “God willing, he will not have died for nothing. The blood of the martyrs will not go in vain.”

Financial compensation

Shehata said his son and others who were killed in the protests would not receive their due rights until SCAF was put on trial.

“The SCAF is in power these days, they are the ones protecting the police,” he said.

“What about us? What about the Egyptian people? My son went to Tahrir because he wanted to help free Egypt and cleanse it from all the corruption. But nothing has changed since the days of the revolution.”

Rana Khazbak, a reporter for the English-language daily Egypt Independent remembers those early days well. She was tasked with profiling many of the families of the fallen and has followed the story of “Egypt’s martyrs” ever since, but said some families feel their stories have been brushed aside.

“I believe there is a social class aspect to this. Those who died in front of police stations were mainly from poorer families and now their families feel like they are totally neglected,” she told Al Jazeera.

“They died because they believed by risking death they would make living conditions better. And this hasn’t happened.”

Khazbak said many of the families she talked to were the recipients of financial compensation from the government, following a SCAF decree that victims’ families would receive about $5,000 in compensation for their loss.

“But compensation is not the issue for them. Martyrs’ families always say, ‘We don’t want money. It’s about justice. We need to see that the revolution actually achieved its demands’ – the reasons their sons and daughters died,” she said.

January 25th medals

The military council has sought to prove it is working towards fulfilling the demands of activists.

It announced last week that Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the head of SCAF, would give a “January 25th medal to all revolution martyrs and wounded” as well as government jobs to all those injured during the uprising.

In a message posted on its official Facebook page ahead of the anniversary of the uprising, the council said January 25 had become a “holiday” and “a day for this generation and future generations to remember”.

It also praised members of the armed forces for having done “their best day and night” in protecting the revolution “with courage and dedication throughout the year”.

“In the name of the great Egyptian people, we offer these brave heroes a tribute of appreciation and gratitude and we grant them the January 25 medal to wear on their chests to show their pride in this great revolution and their commitment to completing its objectives,” the statement read.

Demand for trials

The promise of a medal is likely to do little to ease the anger and pain felt by families such as the Tawfiks, who lost their son Muhammad Sulaiman last January.

He had been in Tahrir for the start of the protests on January 25 and had returned on the 28th for what had been billed the “Friday of Anger“, his father, Sulaiman Tawfik, told Al Jazeera.

But as he was heading home that Friday, he was shot and killed in front of a police station in the el-Marg district of Cairo, Tawfik said.

“He was shot by three bullets. One in the head, one in the chest and one in his belly,” he said, adding that neighbours told him that his son had been transferred to a hospital.

By the time he reached the hospital, his son had died, succumbing to his injuries.

“My son was out there because he was one of the youth of Egypt and he loved his country,” Tawfik said. “He was demanding his rights; he wanted rights for everybody.”

Now Sulaiman’s father has demands of his own.

“I don’t want money. I want trials,” he says. “I don’t want the field marshal in power,” he says, referring to Tantawi. “He is responsible for this. Why? What did we ever do to you?

“I want justice for my son. I want trials,” he repeats, “trials for everybody who is responsible.”

You can follow Malika Bilal on Twitter: @mmbilal

Source: Al Jazeera


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