Meet Sambo, The Reluctant Icon Of Egypt's Popular Revolt

The iconic image painted on a Cairo wall
The iconic image painted on a Cairo wall
Abdel-Rahman Hussein

CAIRO - Mohamed Gad al-Rab, more commonly known as Sambo, was not a committed revolutionary. He did not participate in the 18-day uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak, nor the immediate events that followed it.

Inadvertently, he became an icon in events after much of the history had been made, having been caught up in the struggle between revolutionaries and the regime over the country’s post-Mubarak future. He also inadvertently became the center of the debate over how best to respond to state violence: with force of your own, or by turning the other cheek.

The violence did not end after Mubarak was overthrown; even more bloodshed came in the succeeding months, during clashes between protesters and police or army forces. They are now known as the Mohamed Mahmoud clashes (which took place at two different times), the Cabinet clashes and the Abbasseya clashes.

Eighteen months on, the turbulence of post-revolution Egypt did not abate. The first of the clashes took place on 28 and 29 June 2011. The violence was sparked by a clash between families of the revolution’s martyrs and police forces. What sparked it remains unclear to this day.

The fighting began in front of the Balloon Theater in Agouza, where the families were supposed to commemorate their deceased children in a ceremony. Instead — for some inexplicable reason — they were beaten outside the theater. They were then chased back to Tahrir Square, where the fighting continued overnight and into the next day, as more and more people joined.

One of those people was Sambo, a young ceiling carpenter from the Cairo neighborhood of Sharabiya. He had never felt the urge to attend any of the protests in Tahrir, but this time, he saw Central Security Forces officers beating the families of the martyrs on television.

“The images moved me. I had never been to Tahrir before,” he explains.

A thug?

And so Sambo went to the site of the fighting. A powerful man, Sambo responded to the police attacks by throwing stones, and at one point managed to wrestle a pellet shotgun from a policeman — the type that police were using and would later use to great effect against protesters, blinding many.

Sambo used the gun, and later handed it to central security officers at Omar Makram Mosque. When the fighting subsided, he went back home.

He didn’t know that a reporter from Al-Dostour had filmed him. “A few days later, I was sitting in my neighborhood coffee shop and got arrested right there and then,” he says.

He was branded a thug, someone who preemptively attacked the police. But revolutionary forces saluted his bravery and heroism. Last September, he was sentenced in a military court to five years imprisonment for assaulting police officers and stealing the gun. He soon became one of the poster children for civilians subjected to military trials.

He was to spend almost a year in jail, released in August as one of the 57 civilians given presidential amnesty after being detained by the military. While in prison, his son, Gad, was born. “Prison is not a cafeteria,” he says while standing in Mohamed Mahmoud Street.

On that street, there had been a huge graffiti artwork of him carrying the gun, surrounded by balloons — depicting the savior of the martyrs’ families who had been attacked outside the Balloon Theater.

It was recently painted over by the state’s incessant need to whitewash recent history as expressed in graffiti, but, as he stands there in the street, graffiti artists have already repainted and resprayed new ones.

“The government treats prisoners like animals. I was humiliated and beaten. But it’s not just me, they treat everybody badly. They’re not human, they treat each other badly. No animal would stand this, let alone a human being,” he says.

But he adds that it was “reassuring” that groups such as the No to Military Trials Campaign were following his case. “It helped to know I hadn’t been forgotten,” he says.

Mona Seif, one of the founders of No to Military Trials, says Sambo’s case was different. “He had been charged with a criminal offense, but his actions had been removed from its context. At that time, the military and the Interior Ministry was using the term ‘thugs’ against the working class and those from poorer backgrounds,” she says.

In the wake of his arrest, a furor ensued over whether he was right to wrestle the gun to use it in self-defense, and whether that meant a paradigm shift in how protesters were reacting to state violence. Some said it was only fair to defend oneself from tear gas, guns and swords, while others felt that protesters should stay faithful to the chant of “selmeya,” or peaceful.

Seif feels “selmeya” is sometimes misunderstood. “This is my personal opinion but I’ve always been upset by the presentation of revolutionaries as pure and glossy and don’t resist. The understanding of selmeya is wrong; for many it means to not respond to violence and to die in silence. Rather, peaceful resistance is to not instigate violence, but to defend yourself from it.”

As the man at the center of the debate, Sambo tends to agree. “Are you going to look at whether I used the gun and not look at the people who were dying, who were being fired at and attacked by the police? ... I saw people dying. What do you expect me to do?” he says.

Even as a reluctant participant in part of the narrative of events, he feels cast aside, like so many from his neighborhood. “I got five years, and now I can’t find a job,” he says. “Conditions are worse after the revolution. There are so many youth out of work. I can’t eat freedom.”

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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