By Lauren Unger-Geoffroy
We asked Lauren Unger-Geoffroy, an Arabic-speaking American who lives in Cairo, to share her perspective of life in Egypt after the revolution. In this entry, she writes about two cases involving alleged official brutality and the deaths of prisoners.
CAIRO—On Friday at the corner mosque, the imam was hoarse with emotion as he gave his sermon. Through a loudspeaker system, he shouted the story of Ibrahim [the Old Testament’s Abraham] and about sacrificing for freedom and faith. He went on for an hour, until his voice broke and his last recitations from the Quran were punctuated by breaks and what sounded like sobs.
The imam’s passion was inspired by the fate of Essam Atta, who died Thursday at Qasr El-Eini hospital in Cairo after prison guards allegedly tortured him by sodomization. According to several media reports, an officer from Tora Prison took Atta to the hospital when it became evident he was dying. Some press accounts put his age at 23 and others said he was 24.
Malik Adly, a lawyer for the family, reported that after Atta was tortured, the prisoner phoned relatives to say that police had injected water into him through his mouth and anus. Atta’s brother told the media that he had seen the corpse at the hospital and it was leaking foamy water and bloody fluid from the mouth and nose and had contusions on the face.
“We accuse the officers of the Tora prison of being behind the victim’s death,” Adly said. Cairo’s Nadim Center for Victims of Torture also accused guards of killing Atta. The family is asking Egypt’s state prosecutor for a full investigation into the death.
Some inmates claim to have witnessed the attack, saying guards stuck two hoses into the victim. According to cellmates, prison personnel assaulted Atta after catching him with a SIM card (a cellphone card) that his mother had smuggled in for him.
Activists carrying Atta’s body in an open coffin wrapped in the Egyptian flag marched to Tahrir Square on Friday, chanting slogans against the Ministry of Interior.
An Egyptian security official denied the allegations of official brutality, saying prison medics found that Atta had taken drugs and was suffering from exhaustion. When his condition worsened, he was taken to the hospital, the official said. Another presenter on national television said that sources reported he died from ingesting drugs.
The alleged torture occurred only one day after two policemen were given seven-year prison terms for a similar crime—the murder last year of Khaled Said, 28, in Alexandria—an incident that turned out to be a major catalyst for the national revolution that started in January.
Said was beaten to death in June 2010. Pictures of his bloodied face, broken jaw and bruised body were widely circulated, and activists later used a Facebook page called “We are all Khaled Said” to help organize the uprising against now-deposed President Hosni Mubarak. The page remains an influential rallying point for protests and revolutionary activity in Egypt.
At the sentencing of the policemen last Wednesday, enraged families of the two officers smashed wooden benches in the courtroom and tried to attack the dead man’s lawyers and relatives, one of the lawyers said.
The newest reported victim of police atrocity, Atta, was taken into custody Feb. 24 as he watched a street fight. He was arrested under an accusation of thuggery and eventually was tried by a military court on a charge of illegal occupation of an apartment. Atta was sentenced to two years in the maximum-security ward at Cairo’s Tora Prison, where a number of former figures in the Mubarak regime are being held.
After Thursday’s death, one police official reported that Atta had also been arrested earlier, in 2004 for drug dealing and in 2010 for illegal weapon possession. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because, he said, he was not authorized to address the media.
One cannot avoid seeing the similarities between the cases of Atta and Said. Authorities had portrayed Said, too, as a drug dealer and declared that he had choked to death on a packet of drugs he swallowed in trying to hide it from police. However, protesters who succeeded in having an independent forensic group explore Said’s remains said the examiners found that the packet had been forced into the mouth after death.
For many Egyptians, the prosecution of the two low-ranking policemen in Said’s death and their sentencing were a success and a rare satisfaction of justice. Despite the fact that many felt the punishment was not sufficient, there was a sense of victory against the endemic brutality of this police force. Even so, activists continue to call for a complete revision of the Interior Ministry, Egypt’s police and prison system. In addition, an end to military trials for civilians remains a central demand.
On a Facebook page protesting military trials Atta posted a message Oct. 7:
“I’m imprisoned because my family is poor. But I’m sure God will stand by me, as God is greater than all people,” he said 20 days before his death. Members of Atta’s family say that when he died they were preparing to appeal the verdict.
Authorities’ use of torture was one of the major grievances behind the mass mobilization of the Egyptian revolution. Under the former regime, police torture was routine, and almost nine months after Mubarak’s departure it is still routine. Now, however, Egyptians will not accept it. A key question is: Will the people hold the army and the police accountable for the torture and death of civilians when those civilians are petty criminals?
Nothing that Atta might have done could justify the sickening barbarity of the police. Whatever his past, he well may become the new Khaled Said, another symbol for the revolution. Grist for its mill, new blood and fuel and motivation.
Egyptians had hoped there would be natural change in the police, supposedly restructured since Mubarak’s ouster, but it is clear that the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF) has failed to remove top-ranking officers who served the former regime and thereby has failed to achieve reform.
Atta’s death has suppressed any public sense of reform within the practices of the police and security forces. Brutal traditions held over from the Mubarak regime must be dismantled and cleansed with fire before we can have a civilized police establishment that is truly here to keep the peace, to protect and serve.
The horrifying killing of more than 20 Coptic Christian demonstrators in Cairo’s Maspero district earlier this month was so successfully cleaned up that three days after the violence not a physical trace of the conflict remained in the area where it occurred. No blood, no shells, no tracks. So clean. The only evidence left was the many photos and videos preserved on the global Internet, where they will accuse and condemn for decades to come. A Friday demonstration in Maspero against the killings of the Christians was small and drowned out by news of the Atta death.
Although Atta’s demise inspired a wave of anger and condemnation on the social networks, worries of violent confrontation proved unfounded. Crowds at demonstrations were good sized but not as big or as vociferous as we are used to. People are just too stunned and sickened to be motivated right now. Even the chanting at the protests was relatively weak, and the usual Egyptian rhythmic cohesiveness was off. This month’s news of Libyan President Moammar Gadhafi’s capture and death has reduced public outcry. The people are nearly speechless—for the moment.
The developments of recent days come only weeks before the parliamentary elections in which candidates—one hopes they are voices of reason among revolutionary activists, liberals and the Muslim Brotherhood—will compete to participate in the new democratic Egyptian government. The voting will be the first step toward a true democratic Egyptian presidential election, now set for 2013. So we will see what the people really want … who will emerge as a people’s choice, and what may happen between now and the presidential election. In Egypt, and perhaps across the shifting Middle East.
A time for decisions is nearing. But right now the people are sleeping to forget ever more images of tortured bodies and other signs of their vulnerability.
Egyptians sympathize with and are supportive of all people seeking freedom from corruption and injustice. They are heartbroken for Syria’s torment, they worry about Yemen and Morocco, hope things will be OK in Libya.
Also, their hearts are with the Occupy protests in the United States. But they are puzzled about the media’s focus on the police cordons and not on the suffering behind the protests. And they don’t quite understand an idea of police brutality that doesn’t include some people dead.
Mourners gather around the coffin of Essam Atta at his funeral in Cairo. Egyptian rights activists on Friday accused Cairo prison guards of fatally injuring him in a torture case that they said shows continued rampant human rights abuse by security forces despite the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak.