Monday, October 31, 2011

Torture is back in Egypt

Torture has been a powerful radicalizing element in the Middle East.  It was torture that turned Sayed Qutb from a critic of the Egyptian government and the west to one who believed the whole system was corrupt and irredeemable: the only hope was extreme action.  It was torture that radicalized Ayman Zawahiri, now head of Al Qaeda.  And it was torture that created the hatred of the Egyptians for the police and underlaid the explosion of public demonstrations against President Mubarak early this year.  

The police seem unable to avoid the practice in Egypt.  Now that they are back on the streets the Egyptians are at risk of losing much of what they have gained.  Here is an article that appeared in the Bikya Masr website on October 28.

Power and torture in Egypt by Desmond Shephard Oct 28

“We are all Khaled Said” turned to “We are all Mina Daniel” and then on Thursday evening Egyptians began the “We are all Essam” campaign after rights activists and NGOs reported 24-year-old Essam Atta was brutally tortured to death by prison guards at Torah prison in Cairo after they discovered a mobile phone SIM card in his cell.
The images of the slain Egyptian sparked a massive outpouring of anger toward the country’s police, who also shot dead a man just outside the capital on Thursday. The police have returned in full force to Egypt and it has left the country on the edge, with calls for demonstrations beginning to foment once more. Calls for a renewal of revolution have been drifting in for the past day. Activists are angry.
The return of the police, which was largely responsible for the murder of over 850 Egyptians during the 18 days of uprising that ousted former President Hosni Mubarak, has shown that they have regained their power over daily life in the country. Random checkpoints, ID checking and detention have once more become the norm on Egypt’s streets.
Essam Atta has become the new Khaled Said – the man who was tortured and murdered in Alexandria in June 2010, who largely began the road to revolution – after he was sodomized by a hose by prison guards, who then tossed his body in front of Cairo’s Qasr el-Aini hospital Thursday evening.
According to the al-Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation and Torture, Essam Atta suffered a severe drop in blood pressure and heart failure after being tortured by police officials at Tora prison.
There have already been over 2,000 “likes” on the We are all Essam Facebook page, showing that Egyptians can mobilize quickly.
What Thursday’s torture of the 24-year-old represents is the power, corruption and torture intrinsically part of the Egyptian police force. On Wednesday, the two officers who killed Khaled Said were handed baffling sentences of 7 years in prison on manslaughter charges. It signalled to many activists that change had not come to Egypt in the 9 months since Mubarak was ousted. Instead, what we are witnessing is the rise of the police yet again in the country, employing the same tactics that left a country angry, fearful and ready for revolution.
The power the police have in this country is hard to deny. They can come into cafes, interrogate anyone at anytime. Videos showing police torture have done much to spur a mindset change in the country, but the reality is that after decades of state television broadcasting horrendous reports on the glories of the police, cracking through the inherent belief in the military and the police is proving difficult.
One Egyptian mother, who had never heard of a blog and didn’t have a Twitter account, when told that a man had been tortured to death by prison guards wouldn’t believe the military would allow such an incident to occur. “The military would never let this happen, I know that because they supported the revolution and are making Egypt great again,” the 33-year-old woman told me.
Public opinion seems to fall into this line of thinking. Talking with people, the online activists appear out of touch with the majority, even as they espouse arguably the truth about Egypt’s current predicament. The vast majority of Egyptians believe the official government stance on a number of issues, including the Maspero massacre on October 9 that saw the armed forces kill 27 people, police violence, torture and murder. The military, and its police arm, have created an almost monopoly on public discourse that despite the handful of activists on online networks, tend to garner the support of the masses.
Torture is not new to Egypt, unfortunately. From Khaled Said to Essam Atta, hundreds of Egyptians have been tortured by police, electrocuted, beaten and killed. The difficulty now facing Egypt is how to respond. Online campaigns are all good and well, but they will not galvanize the public.
Ahmed Maher, a co-founder of the 6th of April Movement, recently said he doesn’t use Twitter because that is not how to reach people. He is right. What is needed, in order to counter the increasing power and monopoly on information in Egypt, is a grassroots campaign that speaks with the people on the abuses that are leaving Egypt in a precarious position less than one month before parliamentary elections are set to begin.
Change can come, but fighting against power and torture in the country continues to prove difficult. In the end, when the rulers of the country had been part of the former regime for nearly two decades, it’s extremely hard to battle against their machine.

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