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.
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.”