This is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.
As Bradley Manning is sentenced to 35 years for leaking secrets of US duplicity in the world and Pervez Musharraf, our great ally in the war against terror is indicted for the murder of Benazir Bhutto, the Guardian reports that Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant continues to leak radioactive materials. The latest, over 300 tons of toxic water, has raised Fukushima’s status to “serious” once again.
Has Fukushima been anything other than serious since the original disaster in 2011?
Speaking of toxicity – and cover-up – we shouldn’t forget Hosni Mubarak, who is set to be released from imprisonment today. Not to worry, though, he won’t be walking the streets of Cairo. Word is that he will be detained under Egypt’s emergency laws he so willingly imposed on others during his reign.
Like America, Pakistan and Japan, Egypt is a labyrinth of political intrigue and corruption – there’s no end in sight. But like other disasters, toxicity is continually redefined by the powers that be. The human costs seem secondary, “collateral damage” in modern military parlance. Yet to the victims of toxic insanity, the damage is real. It remains with their families for the rest of their lives – even when they try to bury their dead.
The human cost of Egypt’s war against its own citizens was captured vividly by the Times in an article about families attempting to retrieve their murdered loves ones at the Cairo morgue. It turns out that the families of those killed in recent weeks face a further devastating encounter with a hostile government. But government is too structured a term for what they experience. In reality, the bereaved face an organized form of violent and demeaning vigilantism. Here’s how the Times describes the scene:
The unmistakable smell of death wafted several blocks away from the Zeinhom morgue on Tuesday, and feral dogs scrounging in the rubbish-strewn lanes lifted their noses into the hot, still air and trotted toward it, until deterred with swift kicks.
Nameless young men, shirts untucked to hide whatever they might have had in their waistbands, did their best to make sure no one approached the building, unless they were bereaved family members there to identify and collect a body, and even many of those had a very hard time of it.
The young men — none would give a name, and even asking risked attracting an attack — were described by the mourners as hired government thugs, a tool used during the Hosni Mubarak era that is making a reappearance as self-appointed security committees filling in amid a shortage of police officers. The men themselves said they were neighborhood watchmen, protecting their community from troublemakers and Egypt from the prying eyes of the news media, especially the international variety.
Once again, the theme of Egypt for Egypt – outsiders shouldn’t be poking their nose into Egypt’s business. Even the dead have to be protected from the world’s prying eyes.
How did the dead die? Even the cause of death has to be disguised by power – and affirmed by the bereaved:
Many of the most recent arrivals were the Muslim Brotherhood prisoners, 36 in all, who were killed in what the government called an escape attempt on Sunday, supposedly suffocated by tear gas when the escape was put down.
Mohammad, the brother of one such prisoner, said that his brother’s death certificate read “suffocation” and that he was obliged to sign for it if he wanted the body. “I could see he was not suffocated, his body had been burned completely,” he said. “But it’s in God’s hands now, and we want to lay him to rest.”
Others recounted being forced to acknowledge their relatives as suicides if they wanted their bodies. Three days is a long time for Muslims to wait for burial; they prefer to do it within a day of death.
Leqaa Soweidan, an actress, blamed the Muslim Brotherhood for her brother’s death because he was shot on his balcony watching the group’s demonstration. But when she sought to claim his body from a hospital morgue, she was told to declare him a suicide if she wanted it quickly.
So it is, murdered in cold blood, for the official record, is declared a suicide. The families have no choice but to suffer yet another indignity.
Is the indignity suffered at Cairo’s morgue, ours as well?
What is the true cost of vigilantism and martial law, nuclear power and keeping secrets, vying for political power and murdering rivals? Collateral damage? Humiliation multiplied?
Yes, but ultimately the interrogation of the human. Perhaps we should start at the morgues of the world. What we find there is who we are.