THE BLOG
09/11/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

"You Get Used To It" -- Torture and The Police in Egypt

Beating, rape, torture. Hundreds of videos on Egyptian blogger Wael Abbas's blog misrdigital.com document these incredible acts of violence by officers in the Egyptian police force on Egyptian citizens. Abbas spoke to us in the noisy underground room of Café Riche in downtown Cairo. Known as an intellectual hangout, Café Riche provides a sense of security in a nation of police surveillance.

"The worse video ever was the sodomizing of a microbus driver," said Abbas. "This guy was stripped naked and sodomized inside a police station using a wooden stick."

The driver, Imad Al-Kibir, was walking home when he encountered his cousin fighting with two officers in civilian clothing. According to Abbas, Al-Kibir tried to break up the fight. He was then taken to a police station and violated. It was all caught on video shot on a cell phone by another policeman and eventually distributed to taxi drivers as a warning.

Abbas obtained a copy and posted it on his blog, misrdigital.com, stunning many Egyptians. The public outcry it created could not be ignored by the government. The officers were arrested and were sentenced to three years in prison, with labor -- an extreme and historically unmatched penalty in Egypt.

"It is a precedent and the first of its kind. It is the first severe punishment for torture" said Abbas nodding his head, although he believes the penalty wasn't harsh enough.

Egypt has been under martial law since 1981, and in those 28 years, human rights abuses have run unchecked in the nation's police department. The documentation of the police brutality has been overwhelming, and extends far beyond the videos online.

Last April, the BBC reported that 200 Egyptian citizens were violently subdued in an anti-government demonstration in Cairo's industrial suburb of Mahalla al-Kobra. In January, a prisoner was beaten and humiliated by police in Alexandria. And yet, until the torture video of Al-Kibir surfaced on Abbas' blog, the Egyptian government denied they even had a problem.

Egyptian bloggers like Abbas have grown in number in recent years, bringing to light human rights violations that otherwise would be censored in the government-controlled press. The quantity of the videos on Abbas' website indicates a problem that is systemic and institutionalized, rather than a random abuse of power.

The Ministry of Interior, which controls the police force, disagrees. According to the ministry's spokesman Hani Abdel-Latif, these incidents are being investigated, and the Al-Kibir case was just the beginning of police convictions.

"There are mistakes," Abdel Latif said. "The ministry is the one that finds these mistakes. They do not stay quiet about them."

Egypt's Interior Minister Habib el-Adly is the official head of the country's police force. El-Adly is an iconic figure in the government, and reports directly to President Hosni Mubarak. Loathed by many and lionized by those within the ministry, el-Adly has become a polarizing figure on the human rights issue in Egypt.

A large portion of the force el-Adly commands are riot police, used for maintaining order on the streets of Egypt. Black uniformed officers with automatic weapons and blast shields are a regular sight on the busy streets of Cairo. Their large green paddy wagons often clog the already packed roads, supposedly to prevent possible demonstrations.

Apart from this, uniformed officers can be found on almost every corner in downtown Cairo. It's almost impossible to walk around without noticing their presence.

According to Abdel-Latif the role of the force is to maintain citizens' "freedom within the laws."

The officers are required to protect national unity and security, and Abdel-Latif says training programs are in place to teach them how to deal with prisoners in a humane manner.

The largest portion of the ministry's visible employees are conscripts, or asaker. These men are recruited from Egypt's lowest socio-economic classes and are often illiterate. They are given food and clothing, and a meager wage -- most Egyptian police earn the equivalent of $40 a month. Some are taught to read, write, and understand basic English and French.

Abel-Latif did talk, at length, about the launch of an attempt at reform. We were even invited to a meeting titled "Educational Seminar on Human Rights Issues" offered by the Ministry of Interior. The meetings were held in various police headquarters around Egypt. According to Abdel-Latif, they were intended to explain human rights to police officers.

We attended one seminar at the police headquarters in Alexandria. The main conference room was filled with approximately 300 regular, riot and special police officers. One of the keynote speakers, Dr. Amr Abd Alsamee leaned toward his microphone and announced that his role was "to bring attention to negative public opinion regarding our project of national unity."

But Abd Alsamee did not address the issue of human rights, or how the men should uphold them. Rather, he discussed the history of instability in Egypt, politics of the Arab world, and human rights violations in countries such as the United States and Israel. He rarely spent any time discussing Egypt, let alone the police force.

As Abd Alsamee began his critique of misrepresentations of the police in the media, we were ordered to stop videotaping the meeting immediately. As we turned off our camera, we received a phone call from Abdel Latif, in Cairo, with the same request. When the speech was over, we were escorted to the office of the chief of police. They asked us why we were there and photocopied our passports. When we got our passports back, we quickly exited the building.
Later, when we pressed Adel-Latif on why Egyptian human rights were not addressed at the seminar, he avoided the question. Instead, he discussed the importance of understanding Egyptian culture.

He also accused the United States and Israel of violating the same rights in their own countries they claimed to defend here in Egypt. However, when asked specifically about police brutality and the bloggers' videos, the line went dead. Further attempts to contact the Adel-Latif were unsuccessful.

While there's much work to be done on the police force's attitude towards torture, it doesn't help that police violence has been given a de facto sanction by Egypt's highest religious authority. In October 2007, the Sheikh of Al Azhar University, Muhammad Sayyed Tantawi, issued a fatwa, or religious decree, authorizing a punishment of 80 lashes for "those who commit slander." The fatwa came in the weeks following the imprisonment of several Egyptian newspaper editors. They were all accused of printing false reports about President Mubarak's failing health.

Tantawi's fatwa didn't expressly refer to journalists, but according to the Middle East Media Research Institute, many in the press took Tantawi's statements to be directed against them.
"Any encounter with state security in Egypt is frightening," said human rights activist Ghada Shahbandar. "You just get used to it, after a while. You get used to living in that culture of fear."
Shahbandar is one of the founding members of Shayfenkum, a government watchdog group, and she knows about the police intimidation first hand. She and 11 other founding members helped create the group after police attacked women protestors in downtown Cairo on May 25th 2005. The group, whose name means 'we are watching you', was set up to protect human and civil rights, most prominently in the 2005 national elections.

After initial successes, the group became stagnant. Intimidation from the central police , Shahbandar says, has put Shayfenkum into what she describes as a coma. By 2007, the group was no longer in regular operation. It had lost all but three of the 12 founding members.
"They did not die, we had lost them to harassment and intimidation," she said.

According to her, the central police pressured Shayfenkum members with threats of losing their job and their family. Shahbandar herself said she lives under constant observation.

"The first time I got a call from State Security, I freaked out, I was terrified," she said. "Now they call me, I joke"But police intimidation is no joke for Egypt's opposition political parties such as the secular Hizb el-Ghad, and the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic government party. Members of both groups have been subjected to frequent surveillance, beatings, and imprisonment.
Ayman Nour, leader of the Hizb el-Ghad party, and a presidential candidate in the 2005 elections has been in prison since December 2005, on charges of fraud. According to a representative from the Muslim Brotherhood, over 125,000 Muslim brotherhood members have been jailed in the last ten years.

Despite living under a constant state of watch, and having her friends threatened and beaten, Shayfenkum's Shahbandar still sympathizes with her oppressors. She thinks the police forces are brutal and oppressive because they are taught to be.

She told a story of riot police being lined up in anticipation of a rally she was part of. Around two in the afternoon, a policeman turned to her and asked for water. He hadn't had a drink in more than 12 hours. She said protestors filled up jars of water for all the policemen there.

"At the end of the day, these officers are human. Their rights are being violated; they are more oppressed than most of us are," Shahbandar said.

Twelve Americans, twelve Arabs, two countries - The AUC-QU Middle East journalism Boot Camp took place in June 2008, bringing together students from ten of the top U.S. journalism schools, The American University in Cairo and Qatar University in a unique three-week program of lectures, high-level briefings and site visits in Egypt and Qatar.


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