In the Egyptians’ collective memory, the martyr (shaheed) of war or revolution has always been highly revered because (usually) his image is associated with people’s consciousness of their national identity. This identity encountered enormous threats during times of political crises: foreign invasions, colonial intervention, and wars against the nation’s sovereignty. The respect for the Egyptian army’s patriotism in defending the nation-state against its ‘enemies’, and the sacrifices which the soldiers and officers have made for the nation and paid for with their lives and blood, permeate the life experience of millions of Egyptian families. Egyptian mothers and fathers are expected to feel proud of their sons who sacrificed their lives for the nation. They are considered to be the ‘divine martyrs’ who will always live in the collective memory and their stories will continue to be told to future generations. The armed forces have marked 9 March as ‘Martyr’s Day’, which is commemorated every year. On that date, in 1969, Abdel Mon‘eim Riyad, commander-in-chief of the armed forces, was killed during the War of Attrition between Egypt and Israel (in the aftermath of the June 1967 war). Riyad’s memory and sacrifice for the nation are highly revered by the army and the people alike. More generally, the image of the ‘martyr’ is a profoundly powerful one in Egyptian popular cultural outputs. 

The martyrs and their lasting stories in collective memory

Graffiti image of Jika

In her published memoir entitled Athqal min Radwa (Heavier than Radwa) (2013), the late novelist, scholar and activist Radwa Ashour referred to the martyrs of the 2011 Egyptian revolution as the ‘extended family of activists, revolutionaries, and dreamers’ who belong to the ‘party of stubbornness’ and ‘who detest defeat’ (p. 393). Many names and faces will remain in Egypt’s history book forever (thanks to photography and graffiti): Mina Danial, Emad Effat, Alaa Abdel Hady, Gaber Salah (Jika), among the thousands of martyrs who sacrificed their lives for the revolution. Ashour’s memoir intersects aesthetically with a graffiti book compiled by painter and artist Heba Helmi, entitled Gowwaya Shaheed: Fann Sharei‘ al-Thawra al-Masriyya (Inside of Me is a Martyr: Street Art of the Egyptian Revolution) (2013). Helmi’s visually stunning book chronicles major events of the January revolution’s first year through graffiti interpretations and revealing images which reflect critically on the trajectory of the revolution itself and those who were killed by the army and police forces. The last image in Helmi’s book is by graffiti artist Keizer showing a chandelier and underneath it we read this line: ‘nourhom ‘omroh ma hayentifi’ (Their [the martyrs’] light will never fade). Through such books as Ashour’s and Helmi’s, the story of the martyrs remains alive to remind us that the perpetrators of these crimes have not been brought to justice yet.

Indeed, the symbolism of the date of 25 January itself is also hugely significant. The uprising was meant to disrupt the police institution on its National Police Day (25 January) so as to magnify the sharp contrast between the present and its past patriotic image. On 25 January 1952, more than fifty Egyptian policemen were martyred by the British colonial forces in Isma‘iliyya city. This was a nail in the coffin of the colonial regime that finally led to its downfall at the hands of the Free Officers on 23 July 1952. Decades later, the mass protests which commenced on 25 January 2011 were meant to challenge police violations under the then Interior Minister Habib al-Adli, consequently leading to the withdrawal of police forces from the streets on 28 January, an event that caused them unprecedented defeat and humiliation. ‘Retribution’ (qasas) for the martyrs became one of the iconic slogans associated with the 2011 revolution.

Songs in honour of the revolution’s martyrs

Song "I Love you my Country" by Aziz al-Shafei and Rami Gamal

One of the songs which was composed early on in the revolution as a reaction to the killing of protesters and in celebration of the martyrs’ memory is ‘Bladi ya bladi, ana bahibbik ya bladi’ (Oh my nation, I love you so much). It was a re-make by two musicians, Aziz el Shaf‘ei and Rami Gamal, of an earlier song written by the great Egyptian poet Fouad Haddad and composed by the veteran Egyptian musician Baleegh Hamdi in celebration of the memory of martyrs, mostly children, of the Bahr el Baqar massacre committed by the Israeli armed forces in 1970 during the War of Attrition. The Israeli forces carried out an air strike on the small village of Bahr el Baqar in the Delta governorate of Sharqiyya, killing at least 30 children. In the original song by Haddad and Hamdi, the lyrics are sung by children (as if the voices of the martyred have arisen from the grave). In the new song, with lyrics written by Aziz el Shaf‘ei, the two musicians borrow tunes from Baleegh Hamdi’s song, but sing in the first person, as if a martyr of the 25 January revolution has risen from the grave to deliver his message to the revolutionaries, which is to continue the struggle for freedom and justice and to comfort his beloved mother/nation: ‘Tell my mother not to cry/tell her to rest/we die so our country would live’. In this song, we see how rising Egyptian musicians aligned themselves with past generations of musicians to reinforce historical continuity of the same struggle: sacrificing one’s life for the dignity of the nation and, indeed, for the ultimate dream of achieving social justice.

"Anonymous" sung by Bassim Wadei and lyrics by poet Mustapha Ibrahim

The stories of martyrs have been articulated in other songs as well, most notably in ‘Folan el folany’ (Anonymous), which became very popular after its release in 2011. It is sung by Bassem Wadei‘, with lyrics written by the gifted poet Mostafa Ibrahim and composed by the talented musician Mohamed ‘Antar. The song captures how many martyrs were ‘anonymous’ on the streets and squares across the country, and how their names became known to the revolutionaries only after they were killed: ‘The anonymous person/who was standing next to me when they started shooting at us/I didn’t know his name/so I just called him my cousin’. In the images accompanying these lyrics we see the faces of the real martyrs being drawn and documented by painters and artists (most notably Huda Lotfi and Waleed Taher) who have come together to paint portraits of the martyrs. Musicians and artists here add an extra layer of visibility to the cause of these young men and women who sacrificed their lives for the revolution. The viewer cannot ignore their cause, as their images displayed on the screen remind us that they were not just numbers but flesh and blood who lost their lives in their youth.

In memory of Mina Danial

The Trace of the Butterfly

Athar al-Farasha (The Trace of the Butterfly) by director Amal Ramsis was a documentary film which was widely watched after its release in 2014 precisely because it reflected on the life of Mina Danial (one of the icons of the 2011 revolution). The film chronicles the events of 9 October 2011 massacre when armed security forces attacked peaceful demonstrators assembled in front of Maspero (the state’s radio and television building) in downtown Cairo. During the clashes of what came to be referred to as the Maspero massacre, 20-year-old Mina Danial was killed alongside 26 other Coptic Christians. For many demonstrators, Danial had been their great hope for the future, seen as the Che Guevara of the Egyptian revolution. For his sister Mary, Mina’s death meant not only the end of a life, but also the start of something new. Over a period of two years, Mary Danial is accompanied by the film’s director on a journey through Egypt’s revolution, documenting periods full of frustration and triumph, more deaths, and the oppressive grief for the victims who somehow are still present amongst their loved ones. The film was inspired by a poem carrying the same title by the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. The film’s last sequence is accompanied by a beautiful song, ‘Binid‘ilkom’ (We are praying for you), written by poet Mostafa Ibrahim and sung by Mohammad Mohsen.

The profound stories of the revolution’s martyrs have been articulated in songs, photographs, documentary films and graffiti and street art, particularly the huge mural that was painted over and again on the walls of the American University in Cairo’s campus on the famous Mohammad Mahmoud street. This street was renamed by the revolutionaries as ‘The Eyes of Freedom Street’ in the aftermath of the violent clashes against the demonstrators in November 2011 when tens were massacred by the police forces and others lost their eyes by police snipers.

Further sources

Abaza, Mona (2013) Mourning, Narratives and Interactions with the Martyrs through Cairo's Graffiti, E-IR, 7 October, https://www.e-ir.info/2013/10/07/mourning-narratives-and-interactions-with-the-martyrs-through-cairos-graffiti/ 

Armbrust, Walter (2019) Martyrs and Tricksters: An Ethnography of the Egyptian Revolution, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Ashour, Radwa (2013), Athqal min Radwa: Maqati‘ min Sira Thatiyya (Heavier than Radwa: Excerpts from an Autobiography) (Cairo: Dar al-Shorouk).

Buckner, Elizabeth & Lina Khatib (2014) The Martyrs' Revolutions: The Role of Martyrs in the Arab Spring, British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, 41:4, 368-384.

Mehrez, Samia (ed.) (2012), Translating Egypt’s Revolution: The Language of Tahrir (Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press).

Mostafa, Dalia S. (2017) The Egyptian Military in Popular Culture: Context and Critique (London: Palgrave).

Items from the archive

Books
Graffiti
Songs
Films
Performance

Questions

  1. What role did the figure of the martyr play in the revolution?
  2. How were martyrs represented in popular culture?
  3. What was the political significance of defining some victims of violence as 'martyrs' and others not?