An official Egyptian memorial to slain protesters unveiled Monday at the heart of Cairo’s Tahrir Square has angered activists who say the current military-backed regime is cynically trying to co-opt the spirit of the country’s turbulent revolution.
Egypt’s interim Prime Minister inaugurated the hastily constructed stone memorial Monday accompanied by a brass band playing patriotic tunes. Officials say the memorial — a circular base and pedestal for a planned, unfinished statue — commemorates those killed during protests to oust President Hosni Mubarak, an entrenched three-decade autocrat, in early 2011 and against President Mohamed Morsi, a controversial Islamist, a year and a half later.
But in Egypt, the legacy of the Tahrir Square upheavals has become the subject of a deeply polarized debate, which has grown more divisive and vicious since the military-backed ouster of democratically elected Morsi in July and the crackdown on his Muslim Brotherhood that followed in the months thereafter. Human Rights Watch said earlier this month that 1,300 people have died since the military’s removal of Morsi, mostly amid clashes between security forces and his supporters. Now some secular activists who supported Morsi’s ouster are also taking issue with the military-backed regime’s oppressive tactics — and its efforts to whitewash its links to past violence.
“It’s funny,” Ahmed Maher, a leader of the April 6 Youth Movement that spearheaded the anti-Mubarak protests nearly three years ago, told the Guardian. “They are the killers, and they killed our colleagues and our friends, and now they say they are very sad about what happened, and they respect us.”
Activists also criticized televised comments from the Interior Ministry spokesperson, Hany Abdel Latif, who offered Sunday the police’s “condolences to all the martyrs of the revolution whose pure blood was shed to water the tree of national struggle.” In a video posted to YouTube, the activist group Mosireen superimposed the spokesman’s statement over images of police and military abuse.
The controversy over the memorial foreshadows a potential showdown Tuesday when crowds from separate political blocs will take to the streets to commemorate deadly clashes that began Nov. 19, 2011, between police and protesters — comprising both secular and Islamist Egyptians. At least 45 people were killed during the mass protests against an earlier military-backed regime that assumed power after Mubarak stepped down. A commemorative march a year later broke into violence amid growing tensions between the opposition and the supporters of then President Morsi, leaving three people dead.
On Monday, several hundred people who tried to distance themselves from both the regime and the Muslim Brotherhood marched in commemoration of the protesters killed by police. “Down with traitors, whether military, old regime or Brotherhood,” one poster read, the Associated Press reports.
The memorial in Tahrir Square is the latest effort by the government to show, at least cosmetically, its support for popular protest movements that have become synonymous with the central Cairo roundabout, the repeated staging ground for displays of mass dissent against Mubarak and the governments that followed. A competition will be held to design a statue that will be placed on the memorial’s pedestal.
“No transitional justice starts by building a memorial in Tahrir,” political activist Rasha Azab told the AP. “I have no doubt that this memorial will be destroyed soon. It doesn’t represent anything.” Within 24 hours, the monument had already been defaced by activists.