How a Coup Can Destroy a Family, and How a Family Can Heal
I always admired my uncle Anas, my mom’s youngest brother and a general in the Egyptian police. He helped shape my sense of justice and discipline. When I was growing up, I had nothing but respect and admiration for him and his work fighting bad guys. Throughout his career — and unlike many of his colleagues — he never believed he was above the law. In a country where corruption is practically a way of life, he refused to wave his badge to get out of paying the train fare or to avoid everyday inconveniences. He genuinely believed that the police were there to maintain order and serve the people.
Then a coup came between us.
After Egypt’s generals overthrew President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013, I started attending and live-tweeting the huge sit-in in Cairo protesting the restoration of military rule, just 30 months after Egyptians had risen up against it. On Aug. 14 of that year, police and soldiers — including my uncle’s unit — surrounded and attacked the sprawling protest camp. At least 800 people were killed (some estimates put the number at more than 1,000) and some 4,000 more were injured. I was one of them.
As the police cleared the sit-in that morning, I was shot in the arm. A few days later, the police broke into my parents’ home looking for my father, who served in Mr. Morsi’s government. Instead, I was arrested. A few weeks later, my father was arrested, too.
I counted on Uncle Anas to come to my rescue. While rotting in solitary confinement, I had many daydreams about him knocking down the prison walls to save me, my father and our fellow prisoners from torture and abuse. But he never came.
Why did he abandon us? In the months before the coup, Egypt became pitted against itself. Those who supported ousting Mr. Morsi, including their backers in the state media, had dehumanized a large subset of Egyptian society: the Muslim Brotherhood and anyone believed to be sympathetic to them. I felt the tension rising at every family or social gathering, where small disagreements took on a new viciousness. Anti-revolution rhetoric cloaked itself in anti-Islamism, and conspiracy theories were everywhere. The Muslim Brotherhood was painted as the diabolical enemy of their fellow countrymen.
I am not a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. My father, a respected authority on Islamic jurisprudence, lived most of his life outside of Egypt but was affiliated with a progressive, moderate vision of Islamism. Most important, we both opposed the coup.
I can only guess that my uncle thought the stability of Egypt required him to stand by the crackdown or that he was afraid of associating with his now-dissident relatives. He never came, not even to visit, even though a visit from him could have eased the conditions of my imprisonment.
With every insult, every incident of torture, my resentment grew. How could my own uncle sleep in the comfort of his home knowing his nephew and brother-in-law were facing so much injustice? He was supposed to be better than the rest.
To maintain sanity, I suppressed my memories of the massacre and displaced the pain of my imprisonment into anger toward my uncle. I lashed out at my mother during her brief prison visits, when she would make excuses for him and apologetically suggest that he might come by once things “cooled down a bit.” I blamed him and every other officer who worked for the regime; hate was the simplest solution.
A few months after my release, my uncle was severely injured in a suspected terrorist attack in Sinai, where he was stationed. My mother implored me to offer sympathy. I refused to call. I almost felt a sense of justice.
Two years later, Uncle Anas was still unable to walk. It had been nearly a year since he had surgery for a spinal fracture he sustained as a result of the attack and his muscles had not recovered. Medical exams revealed a fatal diagnosis: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or A.L.S., a degenerative illness.
I still could not bring myself to call my uncle, but as I watched my mother grieve, I began to rethink. I came to realize that in my self-righteous pursuit of justice, I had committed injustice against myself and my loved ones. My resentment blinded me to what was truly important: my empathy and humanity. I had dehumanized one of my most beloved, just as he had dehumanized me. I was angry at him for abandoning me while I was in prison, yet when he became a prisoner of his own body, I was ready to abandon him.
Last summer, I made peace with my uncle. It was the most difficult experience I have had since I left prison. I called him on the first day of Eid, and I could hear the slightly panicked excitement in his voice as we exchanged greetings. He spoke faster than usual, as if trying to make up for lost time. The weight of the resentment I carried vanished as soon as the conversation turned to kids, marriage, health and the famous feast that my aunt makes every Eid. As I ended our five years of silence, I felt the same sensation of freedom I had experienced when I was released. Soon after, my mom told me that the call had done wonders for his morale and that he had accompanied her on a visit to my father, who remains in prison.
My father served in the Morsi government; I was imprisoned for my activism; my uncle was a police officer under successive regimes; many other family members were army generals or politicians under the government of the former president, Hosni Mubarak. Is my family unique? In many ways, not at all. Most Egyptian families are similarly split across the country’s political divides.
With rampant state violence and the absence of any semblance of justice, Egyptian society is beyond polarized — it is broken. The targeting and dehumanization has extended beyond Islamists. Now anyone who dares to challenge the status quo is demonized. Families remain strained, political differences seem existential, dinner tables still have empty seats. Many weddings, birthdays and funerals are missed because of imprisonment, exile or exclusion. The hate, anger and vengeance have somehow overrun human decency.
I don’t know how Egypt will heal. But I do know that it will begin with each of us finding the strength to let love and hope transcend hate and grievance. Even though I may never get to see my favorite uncle again — I am prohibited from re-entering Egypt and he won’t be able to make it to the United States — a single phone call proved a powerful antidote to the venom we had been fed. My uncle and I took back the humanity that was stripped away from us with a simple act of love.