Egypt: Divided society drives ‘preacher of the revolution’ to lonely hunger strike
by- 30th April 2014
SIXTEEN THOUSAND Muslim Brotherhood prisoners are set to launch a mass hunger strike today, protesting against torture and other human rights abuses, according to local sources. Haitham Abu Khalil, the movement spokesman, says many more individuals are unlawfully detained.
The same day a lone Coptic hunger striker, unaffiliated and unsympathetic to the Brotherhood, ended his own hunger strike after twenty two days.
Unlike the others, he did so as a free man.
‘People are dying, hatred is increasing, justice is absent, and prices are rising,’ said Dr Hanny Hanna, an archaeologist and general director in the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities. ‘We have had no revolutionary government, the same regime is with us until now.’
Three years ago Hanna had more hope. As the world celebrated images of Christians protecting Muslims at prayer in Tahrir Square, less known was the reverse. One of the first Copts to join the revolution of 25 January, Hanna became known as ‘the preacher of the revolution’ for leading protestors in Christian prayers and songs.
But these days of unity are long gone. ‘Everyone is tearing down the other no matter what side you are on,’ Hanna told Lapido Media. ‘The polarisation has become so high.’
And with it the body count.
According to figures reported by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace last month, over three thousand Egyptians have been killed in political violence since 3 July, the day former president Mohamed Morsi was deposed.
Over 2500 of these deaths have been the result of protests and clashes, while over 500 have died from terrorism and other militant actions, according to government statements.
Seventeen thousand have been injured in these events, and nearly 19,000 have been arrested. Of these, several hundred have already been on hunger strike to protest their ill treatment in prison.
Hanna, who while drinking only water continued his normal responsibilities, criticized the violence of many protestors which has landed them in detention. But he also condemned the government and its protest law which has imprisoned many innocents beside them.
As the revolution appeared to be slipping away with resurgent autocracy first under the Brotherhood and now more severely against them, the preacher in him grappled with a response.
‘Should I go to the media and just say, “Love each other?” he asked. ‘It is easy to talk but it is stronger to take an action.’
Hunger strikes have largely been an individual action in Egypt since the 1970s, said Osama el-Ghazoly, a senior Egyptian journalist. The mass prison protest is a more recent development, but few have done so outside of jail.
Unlike most, Hanna’s hunger strike had no demands. Instead, it was his chosen action to communicate a message that all is not well and the revolution has not succeeded.
He even takes aim at Egyptian icon General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the front running presidential candidate. Hanna resurrects the memory of the Maspero massacre when 28 Coptic protestors were killed, either shot or crushed under military vehicles in October 2011. Sisi was the director of military intelligence at the time.
‘If Sisi wants my support he should make it clear what was his role in these events,’ said Hanna. ‘If he is clean, then fine. If not, he can go to hell.’
But these messages do not sit well with his fellow Copts. Most are overjoyed at Sisi’s popularly endorsed removal of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government, and anticipate the new constitution will usher in a democratic order.
Even Hanna’s personal Facebook page, filled with good wishes about his intentions, drew criticism. Comments lamenting the timing, method, and relevance of his protest mirrored the responses of political, religious, and revolutionary Coptic leaders.
‘I wish he would be more patient,’ said Naguib Abadir, a Coptic founding member of the Free Egyptians Party, one of the leading liberal flag bearers. ‘We are in a very difficult period with people trying to hijack our roadmap before it can be achieved.’
‘The body is not our own, it is the temple of God and we are responsible to protect it,’ said Revd Fawzi Khalil of Kasr el-Dobara Church, located just behind Tahrir Square, who demonstrated with Hanna from the early days of the revolution.
‘We are able to express our views in ways that do not threaten our life.’
Abadir and Khalil both told Lapido Media that Hanna should save his strength and take up politics, criticising him for picturing everything as negative. But even revolutionary colleagues see him as an idealist, who is harming himself in vain.
‘He is a good person working for peace,’ said Mina Magdy, general coordinator of the mostly Coptic Maspero Youth Union, which suffered heavily in the massacre. ‘But he is giving slogans and this does not work, we need specific demands.
‘Hanna’s message will reach neither the regime nor the people,’ he said. ‘No one cares about him.’
But this unhappy critique is categorically untrue. His wife and three daughters have stood by his side, and over ten friends have promised to join him on a future hunger strike, if necessary, in exchange for stopping now.
Hanna believes most of his critics misunderstand him and have succumbed to a culture that neither values the individual nor believes one person can make a difference.
‘In the beginning no one listens,’ he said. ‘But as you continue more people start to pay attention.
‘The fruit is seen as they change toward the good.’
Still a preacher, but now with his body, this is Hanna’s contribution to continue the revolution.