Egypt in crisis: "The body is evidence of the massacre, how can I put it in the ground?"

Bel Trew goes inside the Cairo morgue where the bodies of Morsi supporters, massacred by the army, are waiting to be buried.

Egypt is bracing itself for another day of protests by supporters of toppled leader Mohamed Morsi, two days after security forces cleared two main Cairo sit-ins, leaving over 600 dead.

There are fears today’s 28 marches, dubbed the “Friday of Rage,” will turn bloody, as the Interior Ministry announced on Thursday night that police will use live ammunition to defend themselves and state institutions.

Meanwhile the military has increased their presence on Tahrir Square, Cairo’s main rallying point, to prevent Morsi supporters from setting up an encampment later.

As the death toll rises, families of missing protesters scour makeshift morgues. The primary one was housed in El-Eman mosque, near the now-gutted square that was the main protest site in Cairo's Nasr City neighborhood.

Outside, crowds of people bang on the main door, desperate to get inside. Those managing the dead can only let a few in at a time.

Inside over 200 bodies, swaddled in blood-spattered sheets, were lined up in rows on the floor. Families in medical masks pick their way through the bodies, peering under the sheets at the mutilated faces to look for their missing relatives.

The room is not refrigerated, so volunteers set up dozens of fans and place ingots of ice on the bodies. They spray air freshener and anti-bacterial spray to ward off the stench of the bodies that are starting to decompose.

One elderly man, in shock, sits on a chair by an empty coffin reading a charred copy of the Quran. Above him are lists of the dead that were found with their IDs.

Families that do find their relatives are forced to wait by the bodies, which cannot be removed until the burial paperwork is finished. 

“He’s my son, just 16 years old. They say we are terrorists, but if want to know the truth look here, see it for your own eyes,” says distraught housewife Ola Abdel-Fattah, from Shubra, bent double over the tiny frame of her only son Khaled on the floor. “His father was with him when he got shot. He carried him out holding Khaled’s body in one hand, his brain in the other. My son is missing half his head.”

Just to her right lie charred bodies too burnt to be identified after allegedly being torched in their tents during the police raid. Their contorted remains resemble the victims of Pompeii. A volunteer holds up a bundle of cloth; inside are two bloated and scorched feet. The rest of the body was never found.

Local medics move between the lines, scribbling names on the shrouds, or jotting down physical features of the dead who have not been claimed.

“Cairo’s main morgue, Zeinhom, is closed and also full. We’re worried the security forces will doctor the forensic reports so they won’t be listed as having been gunned down by security forces,” explains pharmacy student Aisha Shadla, 21, holding a pile of handwritten notes on the unidentified dead. “Now that Rabaa el-Adawiya mosque was stormed by the police, there was no other place to put them so we took the bodies here.”

Many are trying to file police reports so they can start legal proceedings proving their relative was killed by security forces. An impossible task, they say.

“The body is evidence of the massacre, how can I put it in the ground?” says a man, not wishing to be identified, sitting next to the body of his student nephew.

None of the bodies are included in the official death count, which Friday morning stood at 683. The “Anti-Coup Alliance” behind the pro-Morsi protests later reported that this mosque was stormed by security forces Thursday night, the bodies taken away.

Meanwhile the main sites of the sit-ins that have been cleared by the military. Bulldozers were sent to remove the remains of the tents.

Rabaa El-Adawiya mosque, once the heart of the Nasr City camp, is now a smoldering and blackened skeleton. 

The buildings surrounding the mosque, which housed the control room of the protest, have been trashed: posters of Morsi, shoes, blankets and medical supplies lay scattered on the ground.

Wednesday's bloody crackdown on protesters has been widely condemned by the international community. The UN Security Council, meeting on Thursday, said they “regretted the loss of life” and called on all sides to renounce violence.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had earlier called for UN intervention after what he described as a “massacre” in Egypt, and criticized Western countries for not preventing the bloodshed.

US President Barack Obama, for his part, cancelled a joint military exercise with the Egyptian army set to take place next month, adding that the usual US-Egypt relationship cannot continue in light of the bloody crackdown.

Meanwhile the death toll is still rising, and despite the removal of their camps, the supporters of Morsi say they will keep protesting.

“We cannot back down now,” says Hamdiya Sobhi, 35, by the body of her husband. "We will not let these deaths be in vain."


A woman identifies the body of a Morsi supporter killed in Cairo. Photo: Getty
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When the world seems dark and terrifying, we shouldn’t feel ashamed to dream of Utopia

Right now, the future seems dark and frightening and it is precisely now that we must continue to imagine other worlds and then plot ways to get there.

There are many cruel and routine lies we tell to children but perhaps the most indicative is this: if you tell anyone your wish, it won’t come true. This parable was probably invented by parents trying to avoid the trauma of not being able to give their children what they want but we carry it with us to adulthood, when it is repeated to us by our leaders. Don’t tell anyone the sort of world you would like to see – at best you’ll be disappointed and at worst you’ll be arrested.

“We want more.” This week, exhausted by the news, I dragged myself out of the house to a book fair, where I came across a new collection of utopian fiction by radical women. That was the first line and it stopped my breath in my throat. When basic survival seems like a stretch goal, caught as we are between the rich and the rising seas, hope feels like an unaffordable luxury. The precise words I used to the bookseller were, “Shut up and take my money.”

There has never been a more urgent time for utopian ideas, precisely because the concept of a better world has never felt further away. Right now, world leaders are deciding how many cities are going to sink before something is done to reduce carbon emissions. They are meeting in Paris, which very recently saw the opening scene of a new act in everyone’s least favourite dramatic franchise, “War in the Middle East”. We seem to be living in a dystopian trilogy scripted by a sadistic young-adult author and I very much hope that our plucky young heroes show up to save the day soon, even if there’s a clunky love triangle involved.

Dystopias are easy to construct: to paraphrase the novelist Kim Stanley Robinson, you might as well pick five news headlines at random, make a collage and there’s your plot. Utopias are harder. Utopias require that we do the difficult, necessary work of envisioning a better world. This is why imagination is the first, best weapon of radicals and progressives.

Utopian stories existed long before the word was coined by Thomas More in the 16th century to mean an ideal society, or “no-place”. Plato’s Republic has some claim to being the first but there are as many Utopias as there are communities that dreamed of a better life. The greatest age of utopian fiction was the turn of the last century and it is no accident that the early 21st century is a great age of dystopian fiction. The ideology of late-capitalist patriarchy has become so all-encompassing that it no longer looks like ideology. Fredric Jameson observed, “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism” – and the reason for that is not that capitalism is the inevitable destiny of humankind but that we have spent our lives being told that even thinking about any other future makes us ridiculous.

Most leftists do have an idea of the sort of world they would prefer to see. We don’t say what we want for the same reason that we were told as children not to tell anyone else what we wished for – because it’ll be awkward and painful if we don’t get it.

When I think about Utopia, I think about my grandmother. My mother’s mother left school at 13, lived through the Maltese blockade and was obliged by religion and circumstance to marry young, suffocate all her dreams of education and adventure and spend her life taking care of a husband and six kids. Half a century later, I can choose when and whether to have children. I can choose to live independently from men. I regularly travel alone and there are no legal restrictions on getting any job I’m suited for.

The kind of independence many women my age can enjoy would have been almost unimaginable half a century ago – but somebody did imagine it and that is why we got here. A great many somebodies, over centuries of struggle and technological advancement, asked how the world could be different for women and set about making it happen.

Exactly a century ago, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s novel Herland envisioned a society of women in which production was communal, motherhood was valued, relationships were equal and rape and violence were unknown. Reading Herland today, it is striking that for every proposition that came true – women are now allowed to divorce their husbands and participate fully in political life – there are two more that seem as far-fetched now as they did in 1915. Motherhood is still not valued as work. Women are still expected to organise our lives around the threat of sexual violence. But all that can change as long as we continue to ask for more.

For as long as I have been a feminist, I have been asked – usually by grumbling men – when, exactly, we will be satisfied; when women and girls will decide we have enough. The answer is contained in the question: because the instant that we do decide that we are satisfied, that there can never be a better world than this, is the instant that the future shuts down and change becomes impossible.

Utopia is the search for Utopia. It is the no-place by whose light you plot a course through a harsh and unnavigable present. By the time you reach the horizon, it is no longer the horizon but that doesn’t mean you stop going forwards.

Right now, the future seems dark and frightening and it is precisely now that we must continue to imagine other worlds and then plot ways to get there. In the midst of multiple global crises, the only truly ridiculous proposition is that things are going to stay exactly the same.

Human societies are going to change beyond recognition and from the conference table to the streets, our best shot at surviving that change starts when we have the courage to make impossible demands – to face down ridicule and say, “We want more.”

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State