Egypt Independent

Egypt’s shooting of an elephant



In a span of 10 days, militants killed 16 Egyptian guards near the Israeli border, Amr al-Bunni died trying to collect his wages from Nile City Towers, and Moaz Mohamed lost his life to a burnt shirt in Dahshur. In Egypt today, tragedy and farce are two faces of one coin.

Intertwined within each of these deaths are layers of tragedy and decades of injustice. Yet all of this is lost in the noise of polarized perspectives and historical amnesia. So when Egyptian soldiers on duty near the Israeli border were attacked and killed in a shadowy, suspicious incident in which the objectives of the assailants seem largely beyond logical comprehension, the distribution of blame was weighted in favor of the farcical.

If the attackers were Palestinian militants, then they would be acting in their disinterest by attacking their allies and jeopardizing relations with Egypt, losing the sympathy of Egyptians and blockading themselves as the border shut.

Even under Hosni Mubarak, arguably the most hostile Egyptian regime to the well-being of Palestinians in Gaza, no attack of this sort or scale had ever occurred. Why then is such an incident taking place during a time when Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh is received as the president of Palestine by Mohamed Morsy?

And if it is not a Palestinian militia, then maybe it is Sinai’s Bedouins, whose “unfounded” anger, frustration and animosity toward the Egyptian state might have caused them to commit such a crime.

What do they have to complain about besides having their land annexed by the state, sold at comical prices to investors and developers, and then being locked out of employment and revenue-generating possibilities for two decades? Are they not content with their lives becoming global cliches, as tourists dress in their likeness and go on desert excursions to drink coffee under the stars to appreciate their prehistoric lifestyles? Surely they understand that the years of frequent and systematic arrest, interrogation and mistreatment of their kin are imperative in the name of national security.

And when cars burned outside Nile City Towers, a long list of explanations was offered except that which is clear as day — the crude and dehumanizing juxtaposition of absolute wealth with abject poverty and the exploitation of the latter. Fundamentally, Bunni was killed by greed. The question is: Which greed do you wish to blame? Bunni’s for demanding his meager pay for temporary security work? Or that of a multibillion-pound high-rise management prepared to terminate a life to protect its assets. Yet the farce comes with at least a pinch of irony. When Bunni forcefully demanded his pay, he immediately metamorphosed from hero to villain, protector to threat, guard to baltagy — a thug.

In Dahshur, clashes erupted between Christians and Muslims after a dispute over a damaged shirt. The spectacle of an over-ironed shirt highlighted the fragility of the country’s interreligious harmony and exposed a system that absolves rather than resolves. With Christian businesses and homes attacked as retribution for both the damaged shirt and the death of Mohamed, the state has done nothing but postpone reconciliation, perhaps to reap the tragedy tenfold in the future. And for an elitist media whose condescension toward the masses is jarring, the problem is again all about the ignorant, radical poor. The situation was farcical to the extent that as I watched one talk show host discuss the incident, I expected him to half-jokingly suggest that the government issue spanking new irons to Christian laundry owners to avoid such occurrences in the future!

Egypt this past week reminds me of George Orwell’s somewhat biographical 1936 short story, “Shooting an Elephant,” in which the author describes the dilemma of a young British colonial officer in Burma named Moulmein when an elephant went rogue and ravaged a village where he was stationed.

In a fit of rage, the elephant brutalized homes and stomped a man, sending fear and fury among the villagers. They turned to Moulmein as the only person with a rifle, but by the time he reached the scene, the colossal creature had become tranquil again, calmly meandering and vegetating.

Despised by the locals for representing the British crown and its exploitation of the locals, Moulmein desperately wanted to win them over. But by killing a work elephant, he would be ending a life, destroying a piece of “working machinery” and impoverishing its owner. Despite the danger’s passing, the pressure from the angry villagers continued to mount around him. They wanted that elephant dead.

With the burden of centuries of colonial enterprise on his shoulders and a deep visceral desire to be chummy with the ruled, he shot the elephant.

Just as Moulmein’s shooting of the elephant failed to save the British imperial project from its inevitable demise, the “combing” of Sinai will not uproot threats to state integrity. The securing of Dahshur will not mend a shirt or the long-term wounds of sectarianism, and the barricading of the Nile City complex will not conceal the desperation that surrounds the shimmering towers. But for now at least, farce triumphs over tragedy.

Adel Iskandar is a media scholar and lecturer at Georgetown University.

This article was originally published in Egypt Independent's weekly print edition.