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The Politics of Death

How many Egyptians have been killed since the January 2011 revolt? My pursuit for exact figures has proven to be futile. Various sources suggest all sorts of numbers, some scrambled in such a way as to make a political point. It is as if the life of the ordinary Egyptian doesn’t matter on its own, as an absolute value that must be guarded aside from any political considerations. If it does matter at all, it is only within a larger context to simply prove a point.

But the deaths are certainly in the thousands, with many more maimed and wounded. On August 14 alone – one of the bloodiest days in modern Egyptian history – hundreds of people were mowed down, and thousands more were wounded in a security forces crackdown on anti-coup protests in Rabia Al-Adawiya and al-Nahda Squares, among other areas of Cairo and the rest of the country.

It was a bloodbath by any definition – the images, the footage, the stories and the shattered hopes. But equally harrowing was the fact that there was no consensus that killing hundreds of protesters was wrong because it violates every shared human value. Even such dreadful moments were barely enough for most people to set aside their ideology, religious preferences, sectarian affiliations or political identity and simply mourn for a brief moment, just a moment, at the precious lives harvested before their time.

The British Guardian reported on August 19 that “more than 800 people, mostly Brotherhood supporters, were killed last week in the worst violence since President Mohamed Morsi was deposed in early July.”

What was the point of killing 38 allegedly pro-Brotherhood political prisoners on their way to Abu Zaabal prison in northern Egypt on August 18? And what did the killing of 25 Egyptian soldiers in northern Sinai the next morning achieve? Is the life of poor Egyptians cheap to the extent that they are being used as political fodder in exchange of few media sound bites?

What is happening in Egypt? How can a perceived evil become virtuous in a matter of two years? And how could those who shed many tears over the beating to death of Khaled Saeed at the hands of the Egyptian police in June 2010, justify with disheartening ferocity the killing and wounding of thousands of Khaled Saeeds in August 2013?

“The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic,” Joseph Stalin, the communist leader of the Soviet Union once said. In another version, it was “..when thousands die it’s statistics.” Either way, it seems as if there is a threshold number after which a tragedy seems less tragic.

According to the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, 1417 Palestinians were killed during the Israeli 2008-09 war on Gaza, out of which 926 were civilians, including 313 children. The Israeli rights group B’Tselem put the number at 1385, except it is higher in its estimation of minors and children killed, which it put at 318.

Despite the outrage at the Israeli action and the spiteful way in which Israeli politicians justified their war, since then many Palestinians have been killed in equal impunity, but the numbers are not as high. And with every new casualty, there seems to be a tad less outrage, and fewer calls for international action.

When 22 year old Mohammad Anis Lahlouh was killed by Israeli occupation forces in Jenin on August 20, the story didn’t make much of a buzz even in local Palestinian media. It was barely reported. How many Mohammeds were killed on that very day in Syria, in Iraq and throughout the Middle East?

Can human life be devalued like currency?

For months, if not years after the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, there has been little mention of how many civilians have been killed by US forces and their allies. In fact, we will never know as it is all an estimation, some of which is based on newspaper clippings and such. It is outrageous, but the kind of outrage that becomes less shocking with time.

In Afghanistan, it is still impossible to even narrow down the numbers with any plausible accuracy simply because there have been too many casualties, and little time and resources has been invested in knowing how many. And of course, there is much politics in that, for US media sources would do whatever it takes to estimate victims of terrorism, but little to estimate victims of its government’s own wars. The Los Angeles Times estimated that up to 1,201 civilians were killed between October 2001 and February 2002 (reported on June 02, 2002). The British Guardian estimated that up to 20,000 Afghans died as an indirect result of the initial US airstrike and ground invasion (reported May 20, 2002).

As for Iraq, iCasualties.org, founded in May 2003, didn’t bother to tend to Iraqi civilian casualties until nearly two years later. It was then called Iraq Coalition Casualty Count, and until now its main focus has certainly not been the hundreds of thousands of deaths at the hands of these military coalitions. According to Iraq Body Count website, as of the writing of this article, between 114,164 – 125,081 civilians were killed, and “further analysis of the WikiLeaks’ Iraq War Logs may add 11,000 civilian deaths.”

But of course, the numbers are much higher and they continue to rise, as the US has created a political atmosphere that set the stage for a protracted conflict. On August 1, the UN mission in Baghdad released new casualty figures: At least 4,137 civilians have been killed and 9,865 injured so far this year, and 1,057 Iraqis were killed in July alone, reported the BBC. Since then, hundreds more were killed.

The civil war in Syria has done more than enough to devalue human lives as well. The UN and other groups calculate the toll as a result of the brutal fighting at around 100,000. The site of dead bodies piled on top of one another has become a news media staple. Now allegations by both sides regarding the use of chemical weapons are adding another twist to the gory Syrian reality. Still, there is little consensus that regardless of the religion, sect, or political views of the victims, the slaughtering of a family in some peaceful village is a reprehensible act that must be condemned with unreserved outrage.

True, human life has hardly been treated with much sanctity in the Middle East, as dictators ruled with iron fists, and Israeli, US wars carried on with almost predictable succession. But recent wars and revolts have devalued human life even further, for now some are cheering at the misery of others where slaughter is shared on YouTube and social media, with casual comments, similes, and oftentimes utter indifference.

Ramzy Baroud is editor of PalestineChronicle.com. He is the author of The Second Palestinian Intifada: A Chronicle of a People’s Struggle  and  “My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story” (Pluto Press, London).

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Dr. Ramzy Baroud has been writing about the Middle East for over 20 years. He is an internationally-syndicated columnist, a media consultant, an author of several books and the founder of PalestineChronicle.com. His latest book is My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story (Pluto Press, London). His website is: ramzybaroud.net

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