A Friday afternoon editing shift at a Cairo-based media outlet is customarily filled with reports detailing the casualties of violent post-Friday-prayer demonstrations. A final update on clashes in Cairo’s Ain Shams on March 28 contained the same terms we have become accustomed to seeing: “clashes turn violent,” “tear gas,” “supporters of the ousted president,” and “casualties.”
As I worked, almost perfunctory in my approach, I did not pause over the news that 22 year old, Mayada Ashraf, was shot dead while reporting for the independent daily, Dostour. In my subconscious, Mayada was simply one of the many killed since Mohamed Morsi’s ouster on July 3. The fact that she joined the ranks of a 13 year old boy shot dead while observing protests in Beni Suef the week prior, or first year engineering student Mohamed Reda who suffered the same fate last November barely registered.
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An hour or so later, scrolling through my twitter feed, I came across a stitched image of Mayada Ashraf; on the left was a photo of her before she was shot and on the right, another taken moments after. I had never seen one of the casualties whom these reports described. I stared at the picture on the right, which showed a young woman whose skin had not yet been marked by wrinkles, her headscarf still tightly fastened as if she still had a full evening ahead of her. Her face covered in blood. For the first time since arriving in Cairo, I felt my senses return.
I thought not only of the up to one thousand protesters who had been killed at the hands of a repressive and violent state but also of terrorist attacks that claimed the lives of some 175 police officers, and the many innocent observers like Mayada Ashraf and Mohamed Reda. The violence on both sides is deplorable and responding to it requires a two-step process. Voices of reason must regain consciousness and recover their sensitivity to the loss of life, and then these voices must take action to condemn its occurrence.
When a series of explosions at Cairo University claimed the lives of a police brigadier general and seven others on April 2, I was shocked to see that barely anyone at the American University of Cairo was fazed. While the campus’ numbness was unnerving, I knew that had it not have been for Mayada Ashraf, I would have been just as seemingly oblivious.
It was not until nightfall that former parliamentarian, founder of the Freedom Egypt Party, and professor Amr Hamzawy, gave me a sense that others sensed the gravity of the day’s events. He deviated from our usual routine with a plea to the human conscience, “We have to talk about what happened today,” he said, adding “We cannot go on business as usual when these acts of violence occur; what can we do to restore consciousness and sensitization among society?”
As my four classmates and I discussed what had happened with Professor Hamzawy, I felt we were all engaging in step one: we were having a substantive discussion which forced us to unveil the horror of acts of violence which have wracked the country for the past nine months. Hamzawy then pushed us to consider step two, “We agree that what is happening now is unacceptable; but what can students, teachers, and other voices of reason do to make it stop?” One student’s suggestion to call for reconciliation and negotiation was met with another’s rebuttal that her cousin had been killed in the violent dispersal of the pro-Morsi Raba’a al-Adaweya sit-in. “There is no reconciliation or negotiation,” she said. Others suggested protests by academics and students but this idea was quashed when we realized that nearly all demonstrations were viewed by the state as part of a violent insurgency. The apparent futility of the discussion was frustrating. What good is awareness if we cannot translate our consciousness into action?
If protests and demonstrations are no longer effective and calls for reconciliation fall upon deaf ears, perhaps it’s time for nonviolent activists to look to community service as a vehicle for change. Vice president of local NGO Sheraa, specializing in constitutional and legislative reform, Aly El Shalakany, believes that working with NGOs is the best medium to bring about change. El Shalakany himself is one of the young revolutionaries who spent most of the eighteen days leading to Hosni Mubarak’s ouster in Tahrir Square. According to the young VP, change must come through what he calls a 9 to 5 approach.
“In Egypt we are at a point where protest is no longer an effective tool for activism,” El Shalakany says. “The early movers of the revolution, the ones who were in Tahrir on January 25th, have realized this and have moved on to a 9 to 5 approach.” El Shalakany explains that change is a fulltime job and that “activists are now getting involved in their communities, they are working with NGOs or local community initiatives to sponsor youth development programs or improve living conditions in their immediate surroundings.”
While El Shalakany’s suggestion is geared toward the long term, it carries with it implications for denouncing present-day violence in Egypt. As activists channel their efforts toward apolitical community service, support for these organizations widens and they subsequently establish themselves as credible voices for change. When activists work through NGOs to deplore acts of violence, the voice of condemnation stands the chance of becoming powerful and cohesive as it is fueled by the support of benefactors who can attest to the organization’s effectiveness.
A few days ago, I witnessed a disagreement in the middle of a Cairo street, which was quickly escalating into a physical altercation. A similar incident saw a man stabbed to death in broad daylight weeks earlier. As I casually wondered if the same would happen, I left the dispute in my wake. Later, I cursed my indifference; apolitical or not, my sensitization seemed to be leaving me.
Waking up to the horror is the first step and channeling efforts to the work of NGO’s may very well be the second; but as I write this in the hours following yet another Friday shift, I find that for me, there is nothing harder than staying awake.
Amrou Kotb is a freelance writer based in Cairo. He has been published in CNN, the Atlantic Council’s EgyptSource, Al Jazeera America, and Ahram Online. Amrou maintains a blog on current events in the Middle East at www.unclesalam.com. Follow him on twitter @amrqotb