As Egypt goes to the polls today, allegations are multiplying of political torture and killings by a security service beyond the control of the courts
-Taken from the Observer
-Alexandria - November 2010
The Mahmoudia canal wends its way through some of Alexandria's poorest quarters before eventually reaching the middle-class suburb of Somoha, where elegant blocks of flats abut the water's edge and a rickety old footbridge connects one bank to the other.
It was here that 19-year-old Ahmed Shaaban's body was found, battered and bruised and floating amongst the reeds. The police say he drowned himself deliberately, though it is difficult to see how – the channel is so shallow it barely reaches one's knees. A few days later, Shaaban's uncle stood in front of a local journalist's video camera and addressed Egypt's leader, Hosni Mubarak, directly. "You are at war with your own people," he said softly. "Your gang is running loose killing citizens, and all you care about is the presidential chair."
Something is rotten at the heart of Alexandria, one of the great metropolises of the ancient world and Egypt's modern gateway to the Mediterranean. The country goes to the polls today to elect a new parliament in a ballot widely condemned by human rights groups as being blatantly rigged in favour of Mubarak's ruling NDP party, and which has been marred by violent clashes on the street between government security services and opposition supporters.
With more than 1,200 Muslim Brotherhood supporters arrested in recent weeks and prominent dissidents, including former UN nuclear inspectorate chief Mohamed ElBaradei, calling for a boycott of the vote, international analysts are watching this election closely – not for the final results, but to pick up clues about Egypt's political direction as it enters the final days of Mubarak's reign. The three-decade-long leadership of the 82-year-old president, who is believed to be seriously ill, could come to an end next year when a presidential poll is scheduled. Possible successors, including his son Gamal, are jockeying for position.
But as more than 50,000 polling stations open today, allegations of police torture are disrupting the government's carefully constructed narrative of a nation on the brink of democratic reform. "These are the stories our regime does not want you to hear," says Ahmed Nassar, a lawyer who has represented victims of police abuse and tried unsuccessfully to get his name on this year's parliamentary ballot paper. "On the streets of Alexandria these days, brutality counts for more than the law."
Nassar's professional attentions in recent months have been focused in one particular direction: Sidi Gabr police station in Alexandria's most populous neighbourhood. It was from this squat, yellow, two-storey building that two officers headed out in June to pay a visit to Khaled Said, a reclusive young Egyptian who had just posted a secret video online seemingly showing local police officers dividing up the spoils of a drugs bust. They found the 28-year-old in an internet cafe by his house, just off the harbour. Twenty minutes later he was dead, his head smashed against a marble staircase in the lobby of the building next door.
The killing ignited a storm of protest in Egypt, bringing thousands on to the streets. Amid mounting pressure, the government – which initially insisted that Said had died of a self-inflicted drugs overdose – eventually agreed to prosecute the two officers involved, although not on a charge of murder, as Said's family had demanded. As the trial got under way, many believed that the officers of Sidi Gabr police station would lie low and attempt to avoid controversy for a while. They were wrong.
The Observer has collected testimony from several people in Alexandria alleging that they have been tortured by officers from Sidi Gabr over the past five months. Some, such as 30-year-old science lecturer Mohamed Tarek, are active dissidents. Others, such as Mohamed Ibrahim, have nothing to do with politics and were seemingly plucked off the street at random.
In the cramped apartment he shares with his elderly mother, Ibrahim, a 29-year-old electrician, tells how a group of officers bundled him into a Toyota van last month while he was talking on his mobile in the street. He says he was taken to the upper floor of Sidi Gabr police station, where they stretched out his leg on the landing and then stamped on it, breaking it in two places. "I immediately felt numb and let out a scream, but it was like shouting into the desert," claims Ibrahim. "Nothing I could say had any impact; they just kept yelling the most terrible insults, kept on proving their power over me."
Stories such as Ibrahim's, who says he was never accused of any crime and was released with no explanation the following day, are all too familiar in Alexandria. "We have no sense of security on the streets and most of my friends are scared to even walk past the police building – they refer to it as the Sidi Gabr butchery," says Mohamed Abdelfattah, a journalist and film-maker who has closely followed incidents of police abuse in the city.
Victims who have attempted to hold their tormentors accountable through the courts have found themselves the subject of intense harassment from security services; Ibrahim says he was told by police that "we know how to silence people like you", while Said's family have been accused in state-run newspapers of being drug-dealers and Zionist sympathisers. The trial of his alleged killers is still going on.
According to campaigners, the atrocities of Sidi Gabr are not anomalous, nor do they stem from the deeds of renegade officers acting in defiance of orders. "We are beyond the stage of talking about police abuse and murder as isolated human rights abuses; all the evidence points to this being a systematic state policy," says Aida Seif El Dawla, a founder of the El Nadeem Centre for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and Torture. "The Mubarak regime relies on its security apparatus absolutely for its survival, because they have nothing else to fall back on; the government's popular legitimacy is non-existent."
Tarek, who says he was beaten repeatedly by police and threatened with rape and electrocution after being picked up at an anti-torture demonstration, thinks the authorities believe they can only sustain power by keeping the population in a state of terror. "Sidi Gabr is just the tip of the iceberg," he says. "At the Khaled Said protests, people were singing 'down with Hosni Mubarak' and their only weapon against this sentiment is fear.”
Nassar says Alexandria's dark record of police corruption is a product of the regime's long-held contempt for the rule of law – the same malaise that lies behind today’s exercise in extensively-documented electoral fraud. In 1981 the assassination of President Anwar Sadat and consequent rise to power of Hosni Mubarak triggered the activation of Egypt’s Emergency Law, which suspends a wide range of civil liberties and largely immunises the security services from judicial oversight; the ‘temporary’ legislation has been kept in place ever since.
"This entire political elite is founded on the violation of the rule of law," says Nassar, who had his candidacy for parliament rejected by the local authorities with no official justification. Ignoring calls from some leading dissidents to boycott the poll, Nassar had planned to base his campaign around raising voter awareness of an individual's legal rights in the face of police abuse; each of his leaflets featured the line "you are an eyewitness" emblazoned across the page. "State violence defiles not just the law but people's minds too; they see themselves and society as detached from the state and its processes. That's why so few people will vote in these elections; they know the results are fixed, but also they feel that the whole system is something to stay away from."
In Khaled Said’s home his sister Zahraa showed me the intricate sound system that her brother had hooked up from old radios and car batteries, and on which he would practice rapping into the early hours. He was a shy and quiet man, devoted to his pet cats and preferring to fly kites on the corniche than spend time with friends. “He never seemed interested in politics at all,” she said. It was only after his death that the family found several videos depicting Said performing self-penned anti-government songs.
“It wasn’t just a beating gone wrong, it was a public execution,” claims his mother. “The officer was heard by witnesses phoning his superior and saying ‘it’s done, the issue is over’. They killed him in broad daylight, and now they are going after young people everywhere. The youth have declared ‘We are all Khaled Said’, that’s their slogan, and the police are responding by saying ‘yes you are – we will deal with you like we dealt with him’.”
Ahmed Shaaban was held at Sidi Gabr police station for five days before his corpse was, according to police, fished out from the Mahmoudia canal. Three weeks ago the 19 year old was on his way to a wedding when he was stopped at a police checkpoint; his family never saw him alive again. Unlike Khaled Said’s relatives, the family are not middle-class and are hence more vulnerable to police intimidation; since Shaaban’s uncle first criticised the president on tape, he has stopped publicly questioning the official account of his nephew’s death. “We have nothing to do with all this, and we accuse no one,” he told me over the phone this week. “The family are broken,” says Mohamed Abdelfattah, who has met them on several occasions. “Ahmed has been taken from them, and they’re terrified.”
Tonight Egypt’s High Elections Commission will announce the results of the parliamentary poll, heralding the start of a year of political volatility in the Arab World’s biggest nation. But for many Alexandrians, the list of winners and losers printed in tomorrow’s papers will have little relevance to the struggles they face in their daily lives. “Change will not come from this government’s version of democracy, it will come in the shape of a tidal wave from below,” said Zahraa Said as she stood on her brother’s balcony. “Maybe the torture and murders carried out by our policemen will set that tidal wave in motion.”