Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Remembering Khaled Said

Some would argue his death started a revolution – or at the very least was one of its major catalysts. Khaled Said is still burned into Egypt's memory a year after his brutal death.

Today Egyptians gathered in Cairo, Alexandria and Fayoum to remember Khaled.

While the exact details continue to be disputed, Khaled was killed at the hands of Egyptian police in Alexandria on June 6, 2010. He was beaten to death and his body was dumped his home. Four days later his story spread rapidly across the internet after prominent opposition politician Ayman Nour publicized Khaled’s death and pictures of his mangled face.

Egyptians were outraged. Protests were organized. In Khaled’s home city of Alexandria, men and women stood along the corniche, the road separating the city from the Mediterranean Sea, every Friday afternoon. They dressed in black. They carried the Bible or the Quran, and they prayed silently for Khaled’s soul.

Stark images of educated, upper-middle-class youth stretching down the corniche drew more attention. These were not the small, violent demonstrations Egyptians were accustomed to. Those attending actually had something to lose.

Yet Khaled was not the first to die at the hands of Egyptian police. There were many before him. So why did Khaled Said, a 28-year-old businessman, draw millions of supporters to a Facebook page within days? Why were weekly demonstrations organized in Alexandria and Egypt’s capital, Cairo, for months after his death?

Ultimately, the answer is simple: Egypt’s politically inactive middle class considered him one of their own.

Shortly after news of Khaled’s murder was made public, an Egyptian friend told me why he – an upperclass Egyptian who wasn’t involved in politics and had the money for a good education – was so affected by Khaled’s death: “He didn't look for trouble, yet corruption killed him anyway. Maybe they've done worse things before, but this directly threatens me: this is a young guy who comes from almost the same background as me and most of my friends. He does the same things that I do. He stays out of trouble. And yet, this.”

My friend, like many other Egyptians, believed he could be next.

While some of those who publicized Khaled’s case were seasoned activists, many more were not. For the first time, portions of Egypt’s middle class went to the streets in public demonstrations – perhaps the most politically repercussive aspect of Khaled’s death.

In the earliest days of Egypt’s January 25 Revolution, the people taking to the streets were not underpaid laborers or career activists. They were Egypt’s educated middle class, and the first time they had gone to the streets was after Khaled’s death. There were chants for better wages and economic issues, but the calls for democracy, freedom, and human rights were louder. It was, in the beginning, not a bread uprising but a call for what many have termed the “Western” ideals of personal freedom.

The career activists and the politicians were there as well, but they were outnumbered by ordinary Egyptians. Soon the economic demands came. A wave of labor strikes has hit Egypt in the wake of the revolution. Now, people believe they have the right to make their demands heard.

Khaled’s death did not cause the Egyptian revolution. According to a recent poll by the International Republic Institute his death was not even a major motivating factor for Egyptians to participate in or support the revolution.

Khaled’s death was important in a different way. It catalyzed a realization among Egypt’s middle class, who could afford their basic needs: they were no longer safe simply by staying out of politics. For the first time, many decided long-term benefits of going to the streets outweighed the short-term risks.

Now, a year after his death, Egyptians remember Khaled. He is remembered not only as a martyr of the former regime, but as a symbol for everything Egyptians have lost and everything they stand to gain: the rights to life and liberty.

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