What made Khaled Saeed a symbol?

Revolutions need symbols whose personal tragedy distills and humanizes larger and more abstract injustices.  The civil rights movement had Rosa Parks, the Iranian democracy protests had Neda (in the video below) and Egypt had Khaled Saeed (above), whose murder two years ago tomorrow (6 June) at the hands of the Egyptian police in Alexandria become a rallying cry for the revolution that followed seven months later.  The “We Are All Khaled Saeed” Facebook page became a clearinghouse for activists and thrust its administrator, the Google executive Wael Ghonim, somewhat reluctantly into the spotlight himself.  Now Amro Ali, who grew up in the same neighborhood as Khaled Saeed, has a thoughtful piece in Jadaliyya (an excellent Middle East site, by the way, worth exploring) examining both the person behind the myth and the nature of myth-making itself.

Ali describes Khaled Saeed as imperfect and asks good questions about why, in some sense, he was perfect — or had to be made perfect — for political purposes:

Other questions need to be raised from the subtext of the Khaled Saeed construct: What about the rights of those of lower socio-economic backgrounds? Does it matter that a rural youth may not have had access to the Internet? Would a dark-skinned Nubian victim garner as much attention? Can the term ‘martyr’ be applied to a Copt? To what extent would it have been her “fault” if it were a woman in Khaled’s exact same situation? Is there even a concept of Bedouin youth in Sinai? When you add it all up, there are many “Khaled Saeeds” out there on standby who we may never, and we don’t, hear about. Instead of utilizing Khaled Saeed as a signpost for the country’s current disparity and looming socio-economic problems, we use him as the template of what a good martyr should be and look like.

The ‘her fault’ reference, of course, is to the mohagaba in Cairo (I wrote about her here) who was stomped on and dragged by police and whose torn clothes revealed a blue bra for which she was criticized, as if this in any way explains or excuses the actions of the police.  But what Amro Ali does not explore is the ways in which there is nothing particularly Egyptian or Middle Eastern about this blame shifting when it comes to martyrs.  Ali specifically references Rosa Parks but not the story behind Rosa Parks, which is that in 1955 she was only one of several women arrested for petty race law violations that the NAACP could have chosen to take up as a symbolic legal case for black civil rights.  They chose Parks because she had no ‘blue bra’ equivalents that segregationists might use to shift the blame to her.  This does not make Rosa Parks an NAACP pawn, as some apologists have tried to claim; it means that the NAACP knew precisely what it was up against.  Likewise, Khaled Saeed was imperfect, true, but imperfect in ways that many hundreds of thousands of people could identify with.  Martyrs, really, are what you see in them.  As Amro Ali writes at the end:

Khaled’s tragedy is Egypt’s tragedy. We should not commemorate him because he was either a saint or sinner, but simply because he was a human being who was robbed of his rights and dignity once he breathed his last. We stand not only in commemoration of Khaled Saeed but also the countless nameless and faceless lives taken away before and since. Khaled’s mother, Layla Marzouk, is a remarkable woman who works tirelessly to bring attention to the mothers who have lost their children to the regime. Such a fraternity does not need any more heartbroken and distraught members.

This is the video of Neda who was shot and killed during a protest in Tehran:



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