The maddening betrayal of potato-seller, Omar Salah

It is ironic that street vendors have spent more time in the square than any protestor ever has. Omar comes out staggeringly alive in his death. A spectrum of colours is added to his socially-perceived black and white life. We are teleported into another world of how the other (majority) Egypt lives.

An Egyptian army conscript walks up to 12 year old Omar Salah Omran, a sweet potato seller - outside the front gates of Cairo’s US Embassy close to Tahrir Square - and requests two potatoes from the young street vendor. Omar answers, “I’ll do so after I go to the bathroom”. The allegedly untrained soldier retorts with a mix of cockiness and jest that he will shoot Omar if he doesn’t comply immediately. On Omar’s reply, “you can’t shoot me” - the conscript, on the alleged presumption that his weapon was not loaded, aimed two bullets piercing through Omar’s heart. He died instantly. (Based on Omar’s father’s television interview with host Mahmoud Saad. While not present at the scene, he later spoke to eyewitnesses) 

The entire incident was over in ten seconds. The fallout continues.

Many Egyptians were humbled and awoken to another Egypt with the release of a gripping video of Omar speaking to a Life Makers charity member in which he says “I am tired of this job”: he says he wants to learn to read and write.

There is an inherently troubling dimension in Omar’s demise that goes beyond the “accidental” nature of it. It is the callous disregard by the state that instigated and attempted to cover up the crime, and a society that no longer gives a second look to the plight of child labour. 

It took the bravery of activists such as Nazly Hussein, Rasha Azab, May Saad, Ahmed Abdel Rahman, Ahmad Korashi, and others from the No to Military Trials movement to go beyond the call of duty (they were basically doing other people’s jobs) to unearth the details of a broader if clumsy criminal cover-up from Omar’s death to his final resting place, and the state suffocation of the young boy’s memory – an all too familiar process in how Egypt’s designated martyrs are midwifed.

When doctors noted Omar was dead upon arrival, the accompanying police officers in the ambulance were “under orders” to ensure he was not registered with the Mounira Hospital if it was confirmed that he had died. The ambulance paramedics were complicit in this by insisting that the corpse be taken straight to the morgue, against the doctor’s orders for an investigation to take place and to file an “accident” report with the courts. The result was Omar Salah’s case was not registered in hospital records, therefore no age, no location, no forensic report and he was simply named the “unknown corpse.” Once at the Zeinhom morgue, the army personal “assisted” the family in undertaking “silent” burial procedures, and made the illiterate father waive his rights to seek redress by accepting that the incident was “unintentional.” 

The case of Omar becomes more bizarre when you consider the information vacuum on the corpse: it was a chance accident that brought his case to the attention of the activists.

As Hussein noted in the same interview panel with Saad: “We arrived to find Omar’s corpse by chance, his photo by chance, Omar’s father’s story of his son by chance. When we found Mohammed El-Gindi [prominent activist tortured to death] by chance, we found Omar in the bed next to him. When we were looking for Mohamed El-Shafie [a missing activist], we came across Omar’s story…Nobody told us about any of them.” As Omar’s corpse had no medical report, age, etc. Hussein asks if this lamentable omission has become the standard procedure to resolve every matter mired in confusion, so that people can operate only by relying on probability, suspicions and hunches. The lack of transparency and information makes her wonder what else is happening out there.

What utterly baffles observers is the interior ministry’s (believe it or not) confession of responsibility for a crime it did not commit when it is prone to routinely deny the actual killings it does commit. Two weeks later, the military offered a rare apology and accepted responsibility for the killing of Omar when it could not bring itself to acknowledge its very evident role in the Maspero massacre of 28 protestors in October 2011. Currently, the soldier has been detained for 15 days pending further investigations. Which translates as, “our ruse is exposed, so we will get a bit serious on this case”. As for the other cases out there, we have yet to know.

In short, these are the accomplices in Omar’s death and cover-up: ambulance services, ministry of health, ministry of interior, and military. All feeling threatened by the corpse of a poor 12 year old street vendor. The ill-conceived cover-up, in an Egypt that no longer fears to question authority, has exposed everything wrong from the lack of (or sinister) cross-ministerial cooperation to accountability procedures.

On the other hand, it is to be hoped that Omar’s demise will trigger higher social awareness of children’s rights and the relationship of street vendors to the public space.

On a chilly Tahrir night, I often have to get my hands on a hot sweet potato that I would purchase from one of the half a dozen carts in the square. A casual observation of conversations between customers and street vendor shows a banal, at times condescending, tone of: “Give me the big batata (sweet potato) over there.” That’s it. We don’t think twice about why is a 12 year old boy doing this job, can he read and write, what his survival strategies are – as Omar once sadly told his father, “whenever I’m asked if I have a father, I say you died, so it can elicit sympathy and reduce [the chances of] me being robbed.”

Omar comes out staggeringly alive in his death. A spectrum of colours is added to his socially-perceived black and white life. We now know Omar worked his cart for two years, has five sisters and one brother, was adored by those in the district where he worked, had a loving honourable father grounded in his Sa’idi roots from Sohag (Upper Egypt). The father in the interview narrates a story of his daughter being taken critically ill and Omar sensing his father did not have money for her treatment went out to borrow five pounds to buy tissue packets to sell. His father and uncles went out searching for him, only for Omar to come back at 2 am that night with 60 pounds which he handed to his father saying, “I know you didn’t have any money. So this is why I did this.” A selfless child that always put his family first, with only two pounds in his pocket, would go and get a little food and force his father to eat: “No father, I am insistent on this. Please eat. You are so worn out. I swear to God I am not leaving until you finish eating.”

We are teleported into another world of how the other (majority) Egypt lives, the grinding poverty, the non-existent rest and play, the denial of childhood, the language and signals between street vendors, and their self-consciousness.

Omar’s persona shattered (if at least severely dented) socially-induced harsh perceptions of Tahrir’s (if not Egypt’s) street vendors as roaming two-dimensional, opportunistic characters, with no concern for tomorrow’s Egypt (as if they can see the end of their today’s Egypt), and who merely form part of the Tahrir “furniture”, inheriting a fate that is geared to feed the public and appear accidently in the background of photographs. Yet it is ironic that street vendors have spent more time in the square than any protestor ever has and have witnessed many of the historical-changing events of the past two years.

Omar’s tragedy highlights, once again, the catastrophic extent to which Egypt’s poor are put up on the frontlines as canon fodder to bear the worst of Egypt’s unforgiving socio-economic terrain and lawlessness – a phenomenon that materialises itself in fatal train crashes, building collapses and “accidental shootings.”

Egypt’s organic civil society groups have shown that their vital work punches above their own weight. It took a group of activists, mostly female, to demonstrate a competency and self-sacrificing level that greatly surpassed the combined organs of the state, the fractured rule of law and the murky process of accountability.

The father sounds a warning to President Mohammed Morsi: “Omar is with you…It was Sohag that helped you win the presidency... So are a poor person’s rights dead? Well we have God on our side. I’m a Sa’idy [a culture associated with honour], and I will get my sons’ rights back.”

How Morsi makes peace with Egypt’s growing army of martyrs will depend if he can make the ghost of Omar its last. I’m not optimistic in that regard, but I am hopeful in the knowledge that the revolution is not an event, but a process, one that is now decentralising and spreading as far as the Brotherhood’s rural fortresses. Never underestimate a young street vendor: in life and death.

About the author

Amro Ali is a Middle East analyst and PhD scholar at the Department of Government and International Relations, University of Sydney. Twitter: @_amroali ; Blog: www.amroali.com 

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