The following is an audio slideshow on Magdy Iskander, a Christian man who believes passionately in the Egyptian revolution as a force for unity of all Egyptians. This ideal of unity is currently facing a difficult test, as Muslims and Christians face each other in sectarian clashes. Below, you’ll find a transcript of my narration. You can also see more of Magdy’s photos in this photo essay and in this gallery, along with others on the theme of unity.
Around ten years ago, Magdy Iskander used to work in a factory that manufactured televisions. The owner of this factory had partnered with Alaa Mubarak, the elder son of deposed president Hosni Mubarak. One day, Magdy discovered that one of the company’s products was being manufactured in such a way that it posed a risk to users. When he tried to speak up about this, so that the problem could be rectified, he was fired for speaking out of turn. He quickly realised that the fault was a deliberate one, and that corrupt practices were at play. He decided that from this point forward he would do whatever he could to lead, rather than simply following.
My colleague Hend Ismail and I first met Magdy in Cairo’s Tahrir Square during the workers’ protests on May Day 2011. He told us he regularly went there to write posters and signs that he would stick to the walls and pavement. At first, he never realised that there would be a revolution. When he saw the people revolting, he felt that history was changing and that he would soon be able to claim his rights. So he felt emboldened to write all his thoughts: whatever he felt, whatever he wanted to see happen, so that he could share all of these things with the people and inspire them. He did this in Tahrir Square because he thought this was the place where people were most likely to notice and take in what he had to say.
At that time, the police and other people who supported the old regime would object and tear up what he had written. But he persisted, writing and re-writing whatever he had lost. He would display all these papers every Friday when there was a big demonstration in Tahrir Square, and he still does this even now when there is a rally or other significant happening in the news. This is the way in which he hopes to influence public opinion, ‘leading rather than simply following’.
Asked when he will finally stop writing these signs and messages, Magdy told us, “when Egypt sees real change, because the revolution is not yet complete. We are still building. I will only have nothing to say when I see a perfect Egypt”.
If the most recent events in Egypt are anything to go by, a ‘perfect Egypt’ is some way off. Last night, the night of 7th May 2011, sectarian violence broke out between Coptic Christians and Salafi Muslims in the Cairo suburb of Imbaba over a woman who had apparently converted to Islam and was allegedly being held inside a church for this act. The most recent accounts say that 12 were killed and around 200 injured, and we have most probably not heard the end of this.
Magdy told us that the Egyptian Revolution called for unity between Muslims and Christians. He said that the people of the two religions used to live happily, side by side, and it was only the dirty politics of the old regime that set these communities against one another. “Now we need to rebuild our country”, he told us, “and that entails starting with ourselves, which means accepting the differences between us”.
Today, Magdy called us to say that he was going to Cairo’s Maspiro television building to promote his desire for unity to the people gathered there through the large sign he had written. He then hoped to gather some of them and march to Imbaba. I decided to joined him, and we walked together, along with his young friend Mohamed (who first met Magdy in prison following the 9th April raiding of Tahrir Square that I wrote about in a previous journal entry), along El Kasr El Aini Street, through Tahrir Square, past the Egyptian Museum, to the Maspiro building. As we walked, he held his large sign aloft for all passersby to see.
When we reached the television building, we found it heavily guarded, as usual. Several people took interest in Magdy’s sign and he spoke of his vision of a united country. We then walked on, to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs building next door. Here, several men with prominent beards and women wearing full-length black khimars were protesting about recent events in Iraq. A group of the men quickly approached us and stopped Magdy in his tracks. They started shouting and within seconds started to grab at his sign, ultimately succeeding in ripping it from the cardboard he’d stuck it to and tearing it up. They were aggressive and rude, and I thought it prudent not to appear to be taking photographs, though I managed a few discrete ones from down below. Magdy got pushed around quite badly. Though he wasn’t hurt physically, he was clearly shaken up, and very disappointed that his country people had reacted like this.
He didn’t explain exactly what had provoked the men, but I feel it must have been the words on his sign and T-shirt, though he had certainly not intended these words to be inflammatory. The sign said: “Why do you want to divide us? You idiots, we are all Egyptians, whether we are Muslims or Christians. Take your dirty fingers off the Egyptian people. We will remain united, hand in hand. We will join our hands together as one civil nation, with one common destiny. Try to find another game, other than religion, with which you can fool people and burn the country, because we both – Muslims and Christians – love one another. We will put this fire out whenever you try to light it. This will remain our Egypt, even if that’s not what you want”.
The back of his T-shirt read, “I love Egypt more than anyone, and there’s no-one else who will love you more because you, Egypt, are my mother. And I’m your son”. But the front of his T-shirt read, “We all love you Egypt, but who do you love?”. It seems from what happened that where he had written ‘you’ on the sign, this was interpreted by the Salafis as an explicit reference to them. Perhaps they made the same interpretation of what the T-shirt said. Instead of understanding that he wanted unity, they thought that he was blaming them for recent events.
Demoralised, Magdy decided we should leave from there, and we went to sit together in a nearby café, so that he could take stock. He is not young anymore, and though is clearly a man of tremendous fortitude, he was rethinking his decision to march to Imbaba. He did not even have the sign he’d written for the event anymore, as the Salafis had destroyed it. Instead, he went to the church and prayed for several hours for the people who had died the night before.
Then, as he headed home in a microbus, he heard a rumour being shared by the passengers that Christians had started torching cars on the streets, as has happened here in the past. He was very sure that this was not happening, as he had just left the church on the street where these people said these events were unfolding. He was upset, hearing this, and told these people not to spread such rumours, as things can quickly get out of hand once misinformation is spread.
In fact, Magdy told me that he believes that these sectarian clashes were actually triggered by people seeking to undermine the revolution. They have concluded that the best way to damage it is to undo the tremendous unity that has been built among Egyptians of all backgrounds, of which the revolution has until now been the most powerful expression.
As I walked back to Tahrir Square after saying goodbye to Magdy, I took heart from seeing a group of Christians marching towards the television building, with banners proclaiming that they too are Egyptians, clearly imploring the maintenance of unity that Magdy so badly wants, too. I hope this sentiment will persevere.
Sincere thanks to Hend Ismail for Arabic to English translation.