CAIRO — The two mothers embraced in mourning. They both wore black veils. They are both Egyptian citizens who believe in a higher power. And they both have sons who are now dead — killed by Egypt’s ruling powers.
One is Muslim and the other is Christian.
It was Thursday, Oct. 13, just four days after thousands of Coptic Christians had gathered for a nonviolent protest outside the state-run television station at Maspero. Christians in Egypt have been increasingly upset with the military rulers of the country, due to recent attacks on churches, and to what is perceived to be a less than vigilant effort to bring perpetrators to justice. And so, as is commonplace in the new Egypt, especially in Cairo, they took to the streets for a demonstration.
In a flash, the scene deteriorated into chaos. One witness told The Telegraph that protesters were chased by thugs who were yelling that Copts are infidels and that Egypt is an Islamic country. Military police soon arrived in armored vehicles. Using batons, bullets and trucks, they didn’t disperse the demonstration; they crushed it. So far the death toll is 27, with more than 200 injured.
Most, if not all, of the victims were Christians. Among the dead was a tall, gregarious, 20-year-old man with long locks of hair and an allergy to sectarianism. His name was Mina Daniel. A few friends and activists have taken to calling him the Egyptian Che Guevara — same date of death, similar dress, similar charismatic vibe — and the media has quickly taken to this link to the Cuban icon.
Daniel had been smack in the middle of Tahrir during the revolution that toppled Mubarak, and had even sustained serious injuries as the violence was cresting at the end of January. He survived that, only to be killed outside Maspero. Other protesters were run over by the armored vehicles, and there are unconfirmed reports that military police threw dead bodies into the Nile.
Daniel’s family lives in a humble apartment in a poor area on the outskirts of Cairo. The narrow, concrete stairwell leading up to the family home was clogged with people who had come to pay their respects. Women and men of the family sat in separate rooms, quietly greeting friends, family, and strangers. In the room where the men sat and sipped a dark brown tea, one young man, who had spiky hair and looked like he couldn't be older than 25, kept leaning over to cry into his hands.
We had made our way to the apartment from a Metro station, after meeting up with the second mother in mourning. (I was tagging along with a group of about 20 activists from the organization April 6 Youth. It had been their idea to bring the two mothers together, in an attempt to renew the sense of unity that had given the revolution such power last winter. They wanted to remind their fellow Egyptians that, as long as the country’s military rulers were acting much like the regime of old — stoking sectarian strife, conducting violent crackdowns on peaceful protesters, resisting calls for more accountability — the revolution would, and must, continue.)
Leila Said stepped off the train, walking gingerly and supported by her daughter on one side and a young man on the other. She greeted the activists one at a time with a gentle handshake and sometimes a kiss to each cheek. The young men and women replied with a few words of condolence, delivered in a kind of reverential whisper. Then they descended the dust-coated stairs, navigated across the rutted street, and climbed into an awaiting green Toyota Corolla that would take them to the Daniel family’s home.
It has only been 16 months since Said’s son, Khalid, was brutally murdered by police in Alexandria. A bogus report from the authorities claimed he choked on a plastic bag of pot so as not to get caught with it. To Egyptians who knew him, however, and among Egypt's energetic social networking communities, almost everyone believed he was targeted for posting a video documenting police corruption.
A picture from the morgue, showing Said’s horrifically deformed face was posted online and went viral, further amplifying outrage over the senseless killing. Between the summer of 2010 and January 2011, Said's death would prove to be a crucial catalyst among the myriad injustices, indignities, deprivations, and mobilization efforts that eventually led to full-scale revolution.
Said entered the room and a woman seated next to Daniel's mother, Nadia Beshara, stepped out of the way so the two mothers could be side by side. They hugged and cried. Through their tears, both mothers spoke of God's power to heal, and that their sons were now in a better place. Then they prayed together, saying they wanted the protesters to achieve their aims; that if Egypt could become a better place, their sons would rest in peace.
In the hallway, another woman, in a half-pleading half-wailing voice directed at no one in particular said: "How many young men? How many since January 25? Look at all the mothers!" Meanwhile, Daniel's brother, a bald man with stylish rectangular glasses, moved between the different rooms and the stairwell, greeting people with a handshake and a composure I couldn’t fathom. His wife stood in the hallway, holding a smiling baby girl.
We left the home after about 25 minutes. A number of the activists were going to walk to the home of another "martyr of Maspero." Leila Said, her daughter, and a few members of April 6 climbed back into the Corolla to make their way downtown. A candlelight vigil and demonstration was underway near Tahrir Square, to mourn the tragedy of Maspero. Khalid Said's mother wanted to be there too.
David Wolman is a contributing editor at Wired magazine and the author of “The Instigators,” a new e-book about the activists who organized Egypt’s ‘January 25 Revolution.’ Wolman was a keynote speaker at the GlobalPost/Open Hands Initiative reporting fellowship in Cairo, Egypt.