Before the image of Shaimaa El-Sabagh retreats from our memory, let us look once again at her final moments, as she marched through the streets of Cairo, carrying flowers to commemorate those who had fallen in the chaos that has gripped Egypt’s over the last four years, unaware that she would soon follow them.
We all saw the images of Shaimaa’s final moments, which were captured on camera—but did we really stop to contemplate the picture? It was a truly heart-stopping scene: Shaimaa, covered in her own blood after being shot, falling to her knees as her shell-shocked husband attempts to keep her standing, holding her with both arms; a shocking, poignant image. But if we look closely we see other things here as well: passersby catching a fleeting glimpse of the girl with the flowers in her hand, approaching to watch . . only to avert their gazes and continue on their way as if nothing had happened.
One day Shaimaa’s young son will grow up and, I wonder, if he were to meet these people, would he be able to say anything to them face-to-face, or would he simply stare at them incredulously, unable to fathom why they chose to ignore the sight of his mother’s blood spilling out before them and the sound of his father’s anguished cries as he tried in vain to keep her alive. But these people are not alone. How many other pedestrians in our region, whether in Egypt, Libya, Sudan, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, or even Yemen, have witnessed similar scenes and then simply sauntered off on their way immediately after. These people, through what is no doubt some kind of process of desensitization borne of familiarity with violence, have become numb to scenes such as this, witnessed on a daily basis in a region filled with crises and dangers.
Last week during the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp, historians rehashed the perennial question which many have pondered ever since the Holocaust: how did otherwise ordinary people fall silent and allow one of the worst crimes in modern history to take place in their midst? Historians and others have also addressed the question as to whether or not we should hold ordinary Germans responsible for what happened in the Second World War, for despite not actively taking part in the murder, they were facilitators whose silence allowed the crimes to go ahead.
Traudl Junge, Adolf Hitler’s former secretary, has said that despite now considering Hitler a truly evil man, she had no inklings whatsoever of the Führer’s true nature during her long years working closely with him. Her story does not differ from those of countless others from that time, who were also blissfully unaware of what was going on around them.
These examples from Germany and Egypt allow us to understand how totalitarian regimes can consolidate their tyranny by seducing their populations. These ordinary people certainly do not participate in the violent actions carried out by the state, but their silence, obedience and reluctance to question authority provides an unwitting, tacit approval of state violence and oppression. Hitler was able to carry out his genocidal plan because throughout the whole time he had a secret ally aiding his efforts: the rest of the world and its silence. The Führer had long been planning this, but began by implementing it slowly and cautiously for years until it reached its frenzied zenith toward the end of the war.
German pastor Martin Niemöller penned a famous poem after the Second World War which perfectly captures the situation regarding the silence of the majority: “First they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew; then they came for the Catholics, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Catholic; then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist; then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist; then they came for the Protestants—but by then it was too late: there was no one left to speak up.”
It has become common now for people to compare the violence, killings and murder that happen around us to the crimes of the Nazis. But isn’t this exactly how such massive crimes begin, with individual smaller crimes that, with help of millions burying their heads in the sand, eventually grow so large that they consume us all?