North Africa, West Asia

Insecurity under Egypt's ‘security’ forces

Abuses are systemic despite regime attempts to portray them as 'isolated'. People have much to fear from the police and their sense of impunity but they are not taking it quietly.

Aya Nader
21 February 2016
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Press Association/AP/Amr Nabil. All rights reserved.“We are like God; we give orders to be obeyed,” was the blunt and blatant revelation from one interior ministry officer. This is the sense of superiority with which Egypt’s security forces operate, and the divine-like aura they carry around with them is mirrored in an escalating series of what regime apologists call “isolated incidents”.

The most recent “isolated incident” was the murder of Italian researcher Giulio Regeni, which swayed international focus towards the brutality Egyptians regularly undergo.

Thousands of security personnel lined the streets of Greater Cairo on the fifth anniversary of the 25 January revolution. That same day, 28-year-old Regeni went missing, only to reemerge lifeless in a dump nine days later. Bearing the security services’ unmistakable imprint, Regeni’s body suffered from cigarette burns, broken fingers and neck, suffocation and electrocution. The officer assigned to investigate the case is reported to have previously tortured a man to death.

The bad stench of the current regimes' security forces has become obvious to all but them.

“Don’t you know who I am?” – this is the question automatically blurted out in any fight between an officer and a ‘normal’ citizen. This attitude is pervasive and frequently translated from words in the mouths of police to physical enactment upon victims’ body parts.

Under Sisi and his ‘’war on terror’’ violence has far exceeded previous parameters.

As February began, a police officer slapped a woman for objecting to men riding in the subway's women-only carriages and sexually harassing the women on board. More horrifically, there are numerous accounts of girls raped inside security vehicles, as well as at police stations. In one particularly putrid incident from 2014, a police officer raped a mentally disabled girl. Another awful scenario saw a lawyer, defending a police beating victim, shot inside the courthouse.

Brutality was the norm during Mubarak’s rule but under Sisi and his ‘’war on terror’’ violence has far exceeded previous parameters. Within this context, extrajudicial killings have become a privilege granted to security forces, with pro-government media taking pride in them.

Among the incidents that caused a stir was a shootout which left Muslim Brotherhood leader Nasser al-Hafy and eight others dead, for allegedly forming a cell in an apartment in 6 October City where they supposedly planned attacks and stored explosive devices. Adding fuel to the fire, such criminal behavior has been personally blessed by Minister of Justice, Ahmed Zend, with his hate speech last month calling for the killing of thousands of Muslim Brotherhood members.

If this is what happens in broad daylight, one can only imagine what happens in the dark confines of police stations away from the public eye and reach of inquisitive media. While Regeni’s torture is a single incident receiving massive coverage in international human rights circles, this is a daily occurrence for Egyptians.

In this local version of The Hunger Games, some police stations seem to excel at brutality more than others, such as the Matariya police station or the slaughterhouse as it is dubbed by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. This police station alone witnessed at least 14 deaths over the last two years. Lawyers Imam Affifi and Karim Hamdy were among those who died after being tortured in police custody.

Until the security fortress is rebuilt to secure the people rather than the regime, the reality will continue to be that we do not run to the police, we run away from them.

Meanwhile at Al Dekheila station, a police officer beat a detainee, Mohamed Abdelrahman, with a metal door handle, and slammed him into the door of his cell while in pretrial detention. Eyewitness testimonies, along with a forensics report of his 31 facial stitches, proved the assault. Following threats, Abdelrahman was transferred to Borg Al Arab prison for refusing to drop assault charges.

Detained Masr Al Arabia photojournalist Omar Abdel Maksoud had to undergo surgery after his nails were pulled out during interrogations. Initially arrested during the babyshower of a woman who gave birth while handcuffed to a hospital bed, he faced various unfounded charges including 'working for Al Jazeera.' Maksoud and his siblings all currently remain behind bars.

Severe medical negligence, behind bars, is also common. Not even cancer garners humane treatment. Suffering from colon cancer in Tora prison, Emad Hassan was denied access to both surgery and treatment, and a photograph of his skeletal corpse emerging from the morgue was evidence of his slow and painful death.

Highlighting another form of abuse in the regime’s overcrowded cages, during an attempt to regain control during a jailbreak at Al-Hawmdeya police station, inmate Mohamed Imam died of suffocation from tear gas.

It has become common knowledge in opposition circles that interior ministry statements of deaths in police stations due to “low blood pressure” or “circulatory failure” translate into ‘died of police brutality’. More than 50 individuals have died inside detention centres across Cairo and Giza in 2015, according to the official Forensic Medicine Authority, whose head declared that “the large number of detainees makes it hard for many of them to survive”.

Article 55 of the constitution states, “Every person who is arrested, incarcerated, or has his freedom curtailed must be treated in a way that preserves his dignity. He may not be subject to torture, intimidation, coercion, or physical or psychological harm...” 

Yet the Egyptian constitution remains a fairytale, and President Abdel Fattah El Sisi remains in denial of the recurring violations, on the contrary, thanking police officers on several occasions. Not one officer was held accountable or faced any punishment for any of the above crimes, with bails set as low as $125, allowing them to get away with rape, torture, and murder. Hosni Mubarak's Interior Minister Habib El Adly was himself cleared of the charge of killing hundreds of protesters during the 18-day uprising.

Nevertheless, it came as a shock when the 15-year sentence for the police officer charged with shooting activist Shaimaa el Sabbagh was annulled. Sabbagh, “the martyr of roses”, was shot dead during a peaceful rally marking the fourth anniversary of the revolution. Two days after the annulment, another court overturned an identical sentence against a national security officer who had tortured to death a young Salafist, Sayed Belal.

With the number of political detainees amounting to more than 50 thousand, according to activist and lawyer Gamal Eid, and the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms counting up to 630 forcibly disappeared since the military-backed regime came to power, the drastic reform of the interior ministry has become essential. Changes such as improved training for the police force, monitoring systems in police stations, accountability for abuses, and the depoliticisation of the police are just the tip of the iceberg.

Police brutality that ended Khaled Said's life sparked the 25 January 2011 revolution. Police brutality is also what brought together ten thousand doctors this month to protest a week of escalated abuses in a number of hospitals, including dragging two doctors for refusing to falsify a policeman’s medical report, slapping a nurse, and other ‘isolated’ assaults.

Many consider this turn of events the first wave of “dignity” protests following the five-year uprising. Yesterday a young tuk-tuk driver was shot three times over a fare dispute. Residents of Cairo’s Al-Darb Al-Ahmar district, where the murder took place, did not take it quietly. They left the low ranking police officer responsible in hospital with severe injuries, and chanted against Egypt’s “filthy government”. For the second time in one week, thousands gathered in anger.

Until the security fortress is dismantled by revolution, or rebuilt to secure the people rather than the regime, the reality will continue to be that we do not run to the police, we run away from them.

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