Aida Seif al-Dawla is a psychiatrist whose fight for citizens’ rights and dignity in Egypt has taken many forms since her days as a student activist in the 1970s. In 1993, she founded the Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and Torture, of which she remains executive director. Lina Attalah, editor-in-chief of the independent newspaper Mada Masr, spoke with Seif al-Dawla in early April 2015 about the prevalence of torture in Egypt and the latest state attempts to restrict the activities of non-governmental organizations. In the summer of 2014, state newspapers published a warning from the Ministry of Social Solidarity that NGOs operating outside the scope of the law organizing their work would be subject to legal action and possible dissolution. In parallel, media outlets leaked names of prominent human rights advocates and organizations as potential defendants in a lawsuit accusing them of receiving foreign funds to destabilize the country. The news circulated against the backdrop of a systematic crackdown on freedoms, manifested in the imprisonment of activists and journalists and the general suppression of dissent.
You were telling me about the different manifestations of torture that made you want to focus on the issue in the early 1990s. How has torture developed as a practice in the last 20 years? To what extent has it been normalized to target all citizens and not just deter political activity?
It’s a difficult question because we are only able to describe what we see, and what we see is the tip of the iceberg.
In general, torture is associated with moments of political awakening. So we started receiving people who underwent torture around the 2000 protests in solidarity with the Palestinian intifada. Then, in 2003, around the protests against the US invasion of Iraq, we also received torture survivors. The same happened around the Kifaya protests against the regime in 2005, as well as the calls for the independence of the judiciary, up until the revolution. But I haven’t seen anything more violent than what we are witnessing today.
I thought what happened during the revolution was the most violent form of oppression. I won’t ever forget the first case of torture I saw after the revolution broke out. A young man came to us at 6 am on February 10, 2011, and recounted the details of his arrest and detention at a military prison. He claimed to have seen a man dying from the effects of torture, and later we managed to verify his account. He showed us traces of torture on his back—something I hadn’t seen before. Since then, the cases have not stopped.
According to what I see and hear, there is a desire to break people and humiliate them. This is an analysis based not on presumptions but on survivors’ accounts of what they are told as they are tortured. There is also a significant increase in sexual assaults on men and women. In general, I feel there is a beast that took a break and came back in full force to take revenge.
After the June 30, 2013 protests calling for an end to the Muslim Brothers’ rule, torture increased. But the public stopped wanting to see it, and started to label accounts of torture as lies. Some opted instead to acknowledge that torture is happening—and to endorse it. This is the major difference from before. The state will always oppress, but it is no longer so important for the state to hide its crimes of torture as it was in the past.
The usual story is that lesser-known people are the ones who are tortured. But people spoke out fiercely against torture in the wake of the death of Khalid Sa‘id, the young Alexandrian with traits of the middle class.
Violence and torture are inversely proportional to the expected reaction when the case is publicized. If a poor man, unknown to anyone, enters a police station and the cops torture him, no reaction is expected. There are many examples of such people—Islamists and others—whose torture stirred up no reaction. If the man is well known, the opposite is true. Today, however, the Ministry of Interior allows itself a higher ceiling with regard to torture. The way in which the well-known activist Alaa Abd El Fattah was arrested and beaten [in November 2013] is a sign of this escalation, but also of the police settling scores, as we see in other assaults on prominent dissidents. No one is safe anymore.
Do you think it’s true that middle-class people were moved by Khalid Sa‘id’s torture because he resembled them and that therefore his story went viral? Does this narrative bother you?
Of course it bothers me. But there is some truth there. The picture of Khalid Sa‘id was undeniably influential. It was horrible. When I saw it the first time, I thought it was a mummy in the picture. His case got a lot of attention.
But in the same week that Khalid Sa‘id was killed, an old man was beaten and tortured to death in a Nasr City police station and it went largely unnoticed. A group tried to set up a campaign for him, but it failed. In the same month, another man was arrested, and tortured—his hair was ripped from his head—because he was drinking beer with a woman in Muqattam. People asked what he was doing with a woman in Muqattam! It was an indicator that the opposition to Khalid Sa‘id’s death was not unconditional rejection of torture. Sympathy with torture survivors is conditional.
Is torture just a habit acquired over the years by the security apparatus or is it a state policy?
Torture is part of state policy. The state is not content to refrain from stopping torture. There are laws in place to limit a tortured citizen’s ability to get justice. Citizens can get monetary compensation, but it’s very hard to get a criminal case filed. That has to go through the public prosecutor, who is a political figure and has the right to accept or refuse the case. If he refuses the case, the prosecutor is not required to explain why, and his decision cannot be appealed unless new evidence emerges.
Policemen don’t pay for torture tools and torture rooms out of their salaries. These things are paid for out of the Ministry of Interior’s budget, which we fund with our taxes. In other words, we are paying the state to torture us.
We have a culture of violence at home, in school and elsewhere, but it’s different when torture is directed by the state at society and then society copies the practice. Today, violence in society is taking the shape of torture. We recently saw people tie a man to a tree and torture him because he was suspected of having done a crime. There is also a media discourse that condones violence. So we have seen reports of a mother turning in her son, and a woman on the Metro denouncing a girl to a policeman for reading books on atheism because the girl was reading the novel Children of Gebelawi. [This Naguib Mahfouz novel was banned in Egypt in 1959 as it was said to have alienated authorities at al-Azhar. The book was eventually published outside of Egypt and distributed in Cairo, and later, in the mid-2000s, was reprinted by an Egyptian publisher. —LA]
Do you find that torture inside police stations is a version of something that happens every day in the streets, where citizens feel they aren’t in full control of their own bodies?
Of course, the state doesn’t function as a servant of society, but as a proprietor of it. Any plainclothes policeman can stop you at any point and ask for your identification card. Anywhere else in the world, if a plainclothes policeman accosts you in that manner, you have the right to ask him who he is and why he is stopping you. The state here has the right to tell a woman what to wear on the street or at work. When people cross what the state deems to be red lines, the state is entitled to punish them physically by incarcerating them and oppressing them.
You started at the Nadeem Center by offering confidential medical care to survivors, but over time you started to take an open political stand and to publicize cases. Did you feel that the need for advocacy trumped the patient’s privacy? How do you balance the personal and public dimensions of these cases?
The balance is worked out in agreement with the patient—all the details, including whether to publicize the case and what the consequences of doing that might be. Publicity can both be a means of protecting the survivor and a way to put them back in confrontation with the police. We cannot guarantee that a confrontation won’t happen, but we can guarantee that we will be there to support the survivor in either case.
Some survivors ask that we publicize their cases from the beginning, when we do not see that as the right decision, because, for example, the survivor hasn’t seen a forensic examiner yet. In such cases, publicity can lead to restrictions on the freedoms of the survivor and attempts at barring him from seeing a doctor. In many cases, the therapist also has an opinion about publicity and he or she will determine whether we are ready to make a move.
The therapist is present with the survivor at all times when a decision to publicize has been taken. The therapist is there when testimony is collected, whether in a private setting for the writing of a report or press release, or at a public conference.
Do you choose certain cases for extensive documentation and publicity in order to make torture a matter of general concern?
We intensify the publicity with certain cases in order to create some dialectics over the phenomenon and to avoid merely reporting a number of separate incidents. This is what we are trying to do now with the death penalty, for example. But, of course, the campaigns around torture have different players now, with the advent of groups of young activists who are not affiliated with NGOs and who volunteer to move around, meet violence and torture survivors, gather their testimonials and put them out there for the public to see.
Do you think the public has been desensitized to state violence, in view of the increase, and the fact that many people condone it?
It is a fine balance, but to refrain from documenting and publicizing the details of torture cases is not the solution. I think it has to do with how we present each case. Personally, I prefer not to use shocking images of blood and gore. Instead, we want to highlight the life of the survivor, and the extent to which the survivor looks like us, so as to convey that we are all facing the same danger. We try to talk to people who want to listen; for those people, seeing is not a precondition of believing. In any case, there is no alternative but to keep talking about the issue.
Is there a strong gender dimension to torture practices, with men attacked on the basis of their masculinity and women are attacked on the basis of their womanhood, as social norms define those categories?
Of course. Nothing is said during torture parties that is not said on the street. It is just multiplied. So we find in torture of women the same verbal assaults and sexual threats that male-dominated society uses against women. At the same time, as they are being tortured, men are likened to women and to LGBT people. In general, torture is a mechanism for breaking and humiliating a person. The infamous story of ‘Imad al-Kabir is an example: A policeman ordered his subordinate to sexually assault Kabir while taking photographs, which he threatened to distribute among Kabir’s family members. We encounter everything, including rape and sexual assault.
Is it inevitable that torture survivors will be broken by these experiences?
Yes, it is inevitable. But recovery is possible, despite persistent after-effects. The strength of the person in question makes a difference. And the less the individual is aware of the reason for his torture, the less he can explain it, the more difficult his condition can be. Those who work in politics, especially Islamists, believe that this suffering has a meaning, and they are able to decide after the experience whether to continue with their work or to stop. But those who are not directly politicized or who are caught off guard by their torture do not recover easily. They tend to isolate themselves from society and face a certain emotional loss.
What are the cumulative psychological effects of torture and other violence during the clashes between state agents and protesters in the aftermath of the revolution?
Bitterness and anger. No one has been spared. My own son, his friends and his circles, are examples. They went through a lot, from visits to police stations to trips to the morgue. They saw friends die or go to prison and it has all been a cruel experience. My son, for example, has been pouring out his anger at any policeman he meets in the street. Bitterness aside, there is a sense of defeat and a loss of meaning in life, as well as a mix of love and hate for the country and attempts to flee, which fail most of the time.
Have you nonetheless encountered some success in your work?
Of course, there is tangible success. We have become a well-known and respected center, and we are working on important cases. But the more evident success is to be found with patients whose condition is improving and who are returning to normal life, as well as the good state of doctors, and their ability to carry on the hard work, despite the huge pressure they face.
I want to ask you about the Nadeem Center’s role in confronting the state’s crackdown on human rights organizations in the last year. You were an important figure in the stand against the 1999 NGO law, which also limited the freedom of association for the civil society movement.
We had the experience of rejecting the law in 1999, and so we knew how it would end. Nobody believed us when we said we should resist the law because it gave the state the upper hand. That’s why we had to negotiate and, inevitably, a law we opposed passed anyway.
When the law passed, we applied to register the Egyptian Association to Combat Torture alongside other organizations that were also applying to register. The applications were all refused. When we went to court to appeal the decision, the registrations were all accepted, with the exception of the Egyptian Association to Combat Torture. Believe it or not, the last round of arbitration in the Association’s case, which started in 2001, was adjourned again in May without resolution.
Of course, this latest crackdown concerns us. The state can shut us down any time, despite the facts that our accounts are public and that we pay our taxes every year. I am ready to be audited by the authorities, so long as Naguib Sawiris gets audited, too, along with the other big businessmen. If they want to shut down the clinic, they are welcome to do so, but not with the excuse of us using foreign funding. If the state is against foreign funding, let them ban it.
I am one of the people who used to ask diplomats from the European Union in meetings at the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies to stop funding programs in Egypt. It is European taxpayers’ money. If the Egyptian government issues a law that gives it control over this money, we cannot really ask the EU to oppose this decision and risk its relations with the Egyptian government. So let them stop the funding and we will manage. We won’t stop working on fighting torture, even if they shut down the clinic.