Dogs of the System
Istico Battistoni - 02/08/2010
June 6, shortly before midnight. Two Egyptian policemen enter a cyber café in Alexandria.
“Are you Khāled Sa’ēd?”.
“ Khanzīr ! You bastard - you are asking why?”. A policeman grabs him by his neck and smashes his head against the wall.
“Aaaarrrgh! I am bleeding!” – screams the young man.
“You will bleed until you are dead. We know you have a videotape accusing us of drug smuggling. You will die for it. Nobody can challenge the Power here in Egypt and what we do with it. If we want to smuggle drugs, it is our business, nobody will touch us because we are all untouchable.” The second policeman kicks the boy in his stomach, and Khāled spits out yellow liquid.
“What you call Corruption is our staff of life, is what we live with, from ourselves to the Raīs of this country; and you are nothing, and you can say nothing”.
Khāled is barely breathing. The two policemen grab him from the back and pull him against a marble table, until his head is broken. Then they turn their backs to the people who were getting close to the café entrance and shout at them: “ Fahimtum hadhritkum ? Did you all understand? You are all nothing, and you can say nothing. Go to your homes, go to your mosques. We are the Law, we have the Power over people, and you are nothing”. Then, one of the policemen gets close to Khāled’s ear and whispers to him: “Can you still listen to what I am saying? You look like a headless chicken… Well listen: We are untouchable because the Power is untouchable, and those who pretend to act in the name of freedom of expression, democracy and other stupid Western inventions will be squashed like you. Now: shut up for ever”. The policeman takes out from his pocket a packet of Marijuana and puts it in Khāled’s throat until he asphyxiates. Then a small truck comes, loads his corpse and dumps it at a site on the outskirts of the city.
That dialogue is a pure fiction. What is true is the death of Khāled Sa’ēd, 28-years-old, the date, the location and the plot.
Of course, the state coroners concluded that the autopsy confirms that death was accidental, and that the victim had died of asphyxiation from an overdose, and not as a result of police brutality.
Of course, the policemen said very few words to him and not certainly of such a revealing kind when the young man resisted arrest.
Leaving fake proof to frame someone is an old way of operating. And the closer the evidence to the real crime is, the more provocatively exciting the action becomes. Egyptian policemen implicated with drug dealing use drugs to frame the victim in the same way I recorded Israeli soldiers hiding posters of Palestinian martyrs nearby a house, before entering it to arrest someone with the charge of supporting the armed struggle.
But what the policemen never said is what many believe.
The use of violence is part of the Egyptian way to keep public expression under surveillance. On May 3, when the civil and political opposition to the ruling party demonstrated in downtown Cairo for civil and political rights, abolition of the Emergency Law, liberation of political prisoners, and free presidential elections, the police attacked the rally and beat and arrested men and women. And Ahmed Fathi Surour, the president of the Egyptian parliament, threatened those joining the rally with legal prosecution.
If one reads reports such as those of Human Rights Watch, one gets a picture of what suppression of political dissent in Egypt means. In 2009, authorities harassed rights activists, and detained journalists, bloggers and members of the Muslim Brotherhood (the banned organization that is the country’s largest opposition group). Authorities used lethal force against migrants and refugees attempting to cross into Israel, and forcibly returned asylum seekers and refugees to countries where they could face torture. The Emergency Law (Law 162 of 1958) provides a basis for arbitrary detention and unfair trials: human rights organizations estimate at between 5,000 and 10,000 the number of people held without charge. If you compare this figure with the one of 6,300 Palestinians detained by Israeli forces as of May 2010, you would question how can Egypt raise its voice against the Israeli repression…
Egypt’s law governing associations (84/2002), which provides already criminal penalties that stifle legitimate NGO activities, is under revision to reduce freedom margins in view of next year’s presidential elections. Egypt’s law governing political parties (40/1977) empowers a committee chaired by the ruling party to suspend other parties’ activities “in the national interest”.
But the aim of this article is not to investigate on internal repression in Egypt. Let us go back to Khāled Sa’ēd’s story. After the tragedy, the Ministry of Interior has been sticking to the alibi of asphyxiation from drug consumption, but the way the case came to light, enflaming the rage of Egyptian youngsters and fathers, was uncontainable, maybe unexpected and certainly illuminating: someone took a picture of Khāled’s devastated face and put it on the web, before the corpse was removed from public attention. From Blog to Blog, via Facebook announcements, people were calling for a collective uproar and gathered in semi-organized protests, where no one was the leader. The use of something as simple as an image in the social media and in cell phone exchanges nurtured a social reaction which connected educated people and activists with poorly educated people, who found a fertile environment in the close social and family connections of the district where Khāled lived. The reaction was spontaneous, but not unorganized; and it was collective, but decentralized as well.
Ismā’ēl al-Iskandarāny, a young Egyptian political researcher, says: “There is an important number of young Egyptians who are familiar with information technologies and can use them to build change, as well as ordinary people who retake possession of their rights struggling for better living conditions, without necessarily planning to set up political opposition”. Ordinary people of urban slums ( ‘Ashwāyyāt ) take action to build facilities (water, energy, sewage, etc.) for their districts without waiting for the public powers to do so. They are helped by young volunteers who gather in these areas using social media as amplifiers for their actions. When they call sympathizers for a collective gathering in a slum area in Alexandria, for instance, they announce the location and the date of their action using a laptop computer while being in the Bibliotheca Alexandrina’s main hall, in order to shake the Egyptian security off. It is a way to rebuild spaces for political action in Egyptian society without playing the same game of the establishment, and thus trying to escape persecution and repression. ’Issyān madany , civil disobedience is one of the new frontiers of the young political action in the country. “It is for me an unconventional kind of activism which may result in wide historical progress, although it is still about collective action of non-collective actors” – explains Ismā’ēl al-Iskandarāny.
In a context where everything is forbidden, the constellation of social media and communication technologies allows better use of the holes of the political system. This is why the government has been applying the Emergency Law against bloggers. The first one to be arrested in 2006 was Karīm ‘Amer (real name ‘Abd al-Karīm Nabīl Suleimān), who has been condemned to four years of detention for writing about Muslim-Christian tensions in Alexandria and criticizing president Mubarak and Al-Azhar religious institutions.
Wa’el ‘Abbās was detained last year for a few hours for criticizing the Egyptian government and in particular the use of torture in a conference in Sweden. The number of legal cases related to the prosecution of freedom of expression in Egypt recorded by the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information in 2009 totals 520; of that, almost one hundred had to do with bloggers, and for many of them absurd excuses for legal action were invented. Wa’el ‘Abbās, for example, was detained with the accusation of having stolen an Internet cable.
“I might disagree with the opinions and the insulting words a blogger can use on Islam or a political figure, but I cannot accept that he/she is prosecuted. Even if some of them have used an aggressive tone in their Blogs, and have become scapegoats to justify the launching of a repressive policy against bloggers in general, we cannot accept that you go to jail for what you say” – says Ahmed Youssry, a Cairo-based blogger. Youngsters like Ahmed are simply trying to create a space where they can imagine and discuss another future for their country, a change which comes from inside the society and which is non-violent or brutal, as it was in the past.
“Our worst enemy is corruption; but watch out: It is not the people who is corrupting the country, it is the System which is corrupting the people. A system which does not really distinguish between executive, legislative and judiciary power, is a system which naturally selects and brings up the corrupted ones.” – continues the blogger.
Khāled is dead. On Facebook his picture is coming back and forth. Around it, a warning addressed to the authors of the crime: “Dogs of the System, who kills will experience the same end, sooner or later”. Al Jazeera has extensively reported about his case. Looking at it with foreign eyes, even for someone who frequently travels to Egypt, it is difficult to measure the frustration in the society, and the potential for change. But thousands are those who want more freedom, and have the skills to give it voice. Five years ago, the demonstrators of the Kifāya (Enough!) movement were two hundred and fifty. This year the Gam’iyya li-Taghreer (Assembly for change!) gathered twelve times more people in the streets.
Last May, the state-owned al-Ahrām newspaper published an article accusing activists of painting a negative image of the human rights situation in Egypt in order to make personal financial gains through foreign funding. That reminds me of a poem Bertolt Brecht wrote after the East German uprisings of 1953, which says:
After the uprising of the 17th June
The Secretary of the Writers Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?
In a country like Egypt, however, where 32% of the population is below 14, and where the median age is 24, it will be difficult to “dissolve” the people, “elect” another one, and in this way freeze change for ever. Even if Khāled Sa’ēd is not there any more.
English review: Michael Earle