It is either a huge miscalculation or an overdose of confidence that inspires a government to send 20,000 riot police to brutally disperse 3,500 refugees from a public square as the world’s media watches and records. Twenty five Sudanese died, including many children who were crushed to death.
Standing at the start of 2006, it is difficult to decide which of these two states of mind best characterize the Egyptian government today.
On Friday when security forces were sent to end the three-month sit-in by the Sudanese refugees who wanted to be resettled in the West, a month had not passed since 14 Egyptians died while trying to vote in parliamentary elections. On Friday, security forces used water canons and truncheons against unarmed refugees. During the parliamentary elections, they used tear gas and rifles against unarmed voters.
A country that does not hesitate to unleash thugs against its own will not think twice before it does the same to refugees. That is of little comfort of course to the Sudanese parents whose children were killed or to those who lost loved ones in the violence on Friday but surely it was obvious to the United Nations refugee agency which left the Sudanese at the mercy of the security forces.
This morning, just my third back in New York after a four-month stay in Cairo, I wanted to hide in shame when I saw the front page of The New York Times.
The newspaper carried a huge photograph showing two Sudanese refugees on a bus after they were arrested by Egyptian police. One of them was screaming in pain as a policeman grabbed his arm. The other man was desperately trying to hand his baby through the window to a policeman outside of the bus.
The paper lay on the floor in front of my neighbour’s door. I wanted to ring his bell and tell him that the Egypt he would soon be reading about was not the country that I am proud to call my own.
The Egypt I am proud of is home to the protestors who went to the deserted camp on Saturday to condemn the brutality used against the refugees and to call for accountability for those responsible.
The Egypt I am proud of is home to Abdel Nasser, a photographer who bravely documented Friday’s horrors so that no one could say the refugees brought the violence onto themselves by throwing bottles and rocks at the police.
At the start of this New Year, every Egyptian must ask what in Egypt we want to be proud of. What Egypt do we want on the front pages of the world’s newspapers?
It is clear what kind of Egypt the government wants. The day after the 25 unarmed refugees died as the police cleared their camp and less than a month after 14 Egyptians died in election violence, the minister in charge of our security forces once again took the oath to continue his membership in Egypt’s cabinet.
And so once again, no one is held responsible.
Some Egyptians are proud that our country will host the African Nation’s Cup, which starts on January 20. How sadly ironic that Egypt, a country that most of the time rarely considers itself a part of Africa, is hosting this football extravaganza just three weeks after it so brutally broke up the protest of refugees from a fellow African nation.
But considering the violently undemocratic record of most African governments, our government is in good company.
The police violence against the Sudanese refugees has deservedly gained the wrath of democracy activists in Egypt. But they would be concentrating on only half the story if their condemnation does not also address the racism at the heart of the brutality.
I am talking about the racism inherent in the attitude of a Cairo policeman who pointed to the deserted camp, emptied of its Sudanese occupants, and told reporters “They brought diseases and a bad reputation to this district.”
Most Egyptians will flatly deny that they are racist but ask Nubians about their experiences in Egypt or ask any dark-skinned visitor to Egypt how they are received and that denial is rendered meaningless.
The Egypt I would be proud of is one that finally looks this racism in the eye and pledges to fight it. The deaths of the Sudanese refugees on Friday will be in vain unless we confront this racism and – no matter how painful and shameful – admit that it was exactly such racism that was the reason some Egyptians are not angry enough at the way our police force cleared the camp.
Friday’s ugly violence should be our chance to push racism to the fore of painful issues we must discuss in Egypt. Even before the violence used against the Sudanese refugees, several earlier ugly incidents of police brutality in 2005 pushed the issue of state violence to the fore. Similarly, it took the stabbing of a nun and rioting outside of a church in Alexandria in which four Muslims were killed to force the start of a serious discussion about discrimination against Christians in Egypt.
It is time to put racism alongside police violence and sectarianism and finally begin an honest discussion on how to combat it.
On behalf of Egyptians everywhere, I express my deepest condolences to the Sudanese refugees who lost loved ones on Friday. Please know that we are many in Egypt who are sorry for and ashamed of what happened to you.
We are many who want to put a better picture of Egypt on the front pages of the world’s newspapers.