North Africa, West Asia

Egypt: a brutal history of state encounters

Egyptian photographer and director Shady Habash’s death in prison is one in a long history of state brutality in the country.

Maged Mandour
6 May 2020, 12.01am
Egyptian photographer and director Shady Habash who died in an Egyptian prison
Picture from Facebook

On 2 May 2020, Shady Habash an Egyptian photographer and director dies in a maximum-security Egyptian prison. Shady has been in prison for two years, in pre-trial detention. He was arrested in March 2018, after directing a music video for the singer Rami Essam which mocked the Egyptian military dictator, President Abdul Fattah al-Sissi.

At the time of his death, Shady was not convicted of any crime, but he was accused of joining a banned group, spreading false news, and insulting the armed forces. The cause of his death remains unknown. The night of his death, he started to feel unwell around midnight. His cellmates started banging on the door pleading for help. The door only opened the following morning. He was 22 when he died.

In the last letter he wrote before his death, in October 2019, he says:

“Resistance in prison means you resist yourself, you protect yourself and your humanity from the impact of what you see and live each day; you stop yourself going mad or slowly dying because you’ve been thrown into a room two years ago and forgotten, and you’ve no idea when or how you’ll get out of it. So I’m still in prison, and every 45 days I appear in front of a judge and he gives me another 45 days without even looking at me or looking at the papers of the case in which everyone was released 6 months ago. Anyway, my next court appearance will be Tuesday 19 November. I need your support and I need you to remind them that I am still in prison and that they have forgotten me and that I am dying slowly each day because I know I am standing alone in front of everything and I know I have a lot of friends who love me and are afraid to write about me or think I’ll come out anyway without their support.”

Scene 1

April 1999, the Nasser era land reform laws have been reversed two years earlier by the Mubarak regime. The law fixed rent, and prohibited the expulsion of tenants from the lands, giving them quasi ownership rights.

Mass expulsion of tenants had already begun. In a village, south of the city of Port Said, the security forces, claiming to be carrying out the governors orders, attack the houses of 560 families. The families are humiliated, their fields burned, and their belongings confiscated. When some of the villagers resisted the onslaught, they were rounded up and tortured in the local police station. When the villagers produced documents to prove their ownership of the land, they were told that the ownership of the land had moved to senior government officials and members of parliament, including lands that were reclaimed by the villagers and made productive. When the villagers protested, they were tortured, and forced at gunpoint to give up their right to the land, making them homeless.

Scene 2

15 June 1960, the prominent leader of the Egyptian communist movement, Shoudy Attiya, is under arrest, as part of the Nasserist repression of the communist movement. Earlier that day, Attiya was in the courthouse where he defended himself and his colleagues. During the defence, he praised the nationalization measure undertaken by Nasser, as a step towards social justice, requesting his release by the court in order to support the Nasserist regime in its fight against imperialism.

After the trial, he was moved to the notorious Abu Zabal prison, where he was tortured. He was berated by his torturer, as he was asked to say, “I am a woman”, Attiya refused. The torture, which involved savage beatings with thick stocks and drownings, continued, until a heavy thud was heard. Attiya died at the hands of his torturer. His death provoked an international uproar from Egypt`s Eastern bloc allies, prompting a temporary halt of torture.

Scene 3

June 1906, in the Egyptian village of Dunshway, located in the West of the Delta, a group of five British officers decide to go to the village to hunt pigeons. The pigeons are a local source of food. A scuffle breaks out between the villagers and the officers, started by an older villager who was worried about his barn catching fire from the gunpowder. In the midst of the scuffle, the rifle of one of the officers is fired wounding an Egyptian woman.

The villagers are able to overpower the officers, causing some minor injuries. One of the officers is able to escape, and runs for eight kilometres in the blistering sun. He collapses and dies of a heat stroke. A villager comes to his aid, at the same time that other British officers arrive at the scene. They assume that he is a culprit in his death and immediately kill him. A trial is quickly held for the villagers, eleven days after the incident. The trial is swift, and the rulings harsh, with no room for appeal.

The judge orders the execution of three villagers, long-term imprisonment for nine others, and the lashing of eight others. The executions and lashing are carried out in public, with their families forced to watch. The first man is hung, and his body is left dangling, while the lashing is carried out on two other men, and the cycle is repeated.

George Bernard Shaw described the scene:

“They had room for only one man on the gallows, and had to leave him hanging half an hour to make sure [he was dead] and give his family plenty of time to watch him swinging, thus having two hours to kill as well as four men, they kept the entertainment going by flogging eight men with fifty lashes each”.

Opening Scene

Mohamed Ali, the Ottoman governor of Egypt and the founder of the modern Egyptian state and military has embarked on an expedition to add Syria to his control. The Egyptian army is able to overrun Syria with relative ease, however, Acre proves formidable. The siege of the city lasts from November 1831 to May 1832. As the siege of the city drags on, there are rumours spreading in Cairo and signs of possible unrest.

The Pasha reacts by beheading three men; their bodies are hung from the city gates of Cairo, with a label on their chests that states, “This is the fate that awaits those who cannot govern their tongues”. The rule of the emerging state is so repressive, and the military conscription so brutal and long that peasants refrained from getting married, in order to spare their children. Male peasants, with help from their wives and mothers start a practice of self-maiming to avoid military conscription. In one case, a woman was accused of gouging out the eyes of two men, one was a deserter, and the other was her own son who wanted to avoid military conscription. She was drowned in the Nile under orders of the Pasha.

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