On December 2, 2013, Mahienour al-Massry organized a protest on the corniche running along the Mediterranean seafront in Alexandria, Egypt’s second city. The human rights attorney’s raven ponytail and oversized black glasses made her easy to spot amid the dozens of people with their backs turned to the sea and their eyes trained on the courthouse across the busy roadway. Inside the building, two police officers were appealing their conviction for the brutal killing of Khalid Sa‘id in 2010, one of the incidents that galvanized the 2011 uprising that brought down President Husni Mubarak. The protesters shouted: “Down with every agent of the military!”
After the coup of July 3, 2013, judges in Egypt repeatedly shocked polite world opinion. In hasty proceedings held in police facilities, in the absence of defense attorneys, courts passed down sentences of death and life imprisonment for thousands of supporters of the ousted Muhammad Mursi, Egypt’s first elected president. In one pair of cases in Minya province in 2014, 1,212 people were condemned to die for the killing of two policemen. Mursi himself faces six separate trials. In one of these, related to Mursi’s escape from illegal detention as a political prisoner in the early days of the 2011 uprising that unseated Husni Mubarak, judge Shaaban al-Shami imposed the death penalty. Shami had ordered Mubarak released in a 2013 corruption case, and two years later was promoted to assistant justice minister for forensic medicine.
Scholars of the Egypt and the Middle East call on President Obama to stop the longstanding US support for Egypt’s undemocratic military regime.
Ever since the Black Lives Matter movement exploded into the headlines, violence by American police officers has come under fire from activists and ordinary citizens alike. Less discussed, however, is how the US government winks at the police brutality of its client states abroad.
The military government in Egypt, for example, is cracking down hard on its restive citizenry—harder than any time in memory. And the United States, which sends the country over a $1 billion a year in security aid, is looking the other way.
The cops on the beat in Egyptian cities are a menace. They demand bribes from motorists on any pretense and mete out lethal violence on a whim.
An authoritarian regime may be unpopular, even loathed, but at least it has rules. The rules may bear little resemblance to the law, but relations between state officials and society come to have a predictable rhythm. People understand where the red lines are, and they can choose to stay within them or to step across. Egypt does not work this way under the field marshal who became president, ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi.
Constraints on academic freedom or violations of it are not new in the Middle East and North Africa. Indeed, while there is certainly variation among the countries of the region, regime attempts to control what is studied, how it is studied, and what faculty and students may do and say both on and off campus have a long history.
Last week marked the passage of five years since Husni Mubarak was compelled to resign as president of Egypt by the enormous uprising centered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Around the anniversary, we asked some friends and colleagues who have written on Egypt to list their favorite MERIP articles about that country. Not surprisingly, the lists are skewed toward coverage from 2011 to the present, but there are some older items as well. We offer these samples from our archive in hopes of shedding light on the historical roots of the uprising, the subsequent retrenchment of the authoritarian state and the popular struggles for “bread, freedom and social justice” that continue to this day.
Published in MERIP Reports 58 (June 1977):
A truck cruising down Qasr al-‘Ayni Street dressed as a blue papier-mâché boat. A belly dancer clad in a silver lycra dress and a blonde wig, upper body undulating out of the window of a white sedan. Tahrir Square, lit up like a local wedding, crowded with thousands, their faces painted red, white and black, sounding horns and waving flags.
On July 26, 1956, Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal. With this action, the young Egyptian president was catapulted to world prominence as a recognized leader of the Arab nationalist and Non-Aligned movements of the time. The nationalization secured for Nasser a reputation for resolute anti-imperialism and commitment to national autonomy. It also dealt a devastating blow to what was left of British and, to a lesser extent French, hegemony in the Middle East.
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.
On June 6, two police officers will stand trial for torturing Karim Hamdi, a 27 year-old lawyer, to death on a cold February evening inside the Matariyya police station in eastern metropolitan Cairo. The identities of the officers are protected by a gag order, but the widely publicized images of their victim’s bruised and battered corpse have put the police station and its restive environs in the national spotlight.
For those familiar with even the barest facts of the case, the provisional sentence of Emad al-Din Shahin to death seems appalling. Professor Shahin is a widely respected and accomplished academic who has taught at Notre Dame, Harvard, Georgetown, the American University in Cairo and George Washington University. He has no record of organized political activity. The list of the other alleged participants—a group that resembles a list of political opponents and associates and technocratic aides of ousted President Muhammad Mursi far more than it does a real set of plotters—makes the charges seem even more improbable.
Yesterday was the forty-fifth anniversary of the day when Ohio National Guardsmen fired 67 rounds of live ammunition into a crowd of peaceful protesters at Kent State University. The crime took 13 seconds. The tragedy endures.
As usual, the campus I call home closed for half of Remembrance Day. Many separate remembrances take place each May 4, as well as in the days leading up to it. Student organizations, such as the May 4 Task Force, remain vigilant and active even if the student body’s politics have quieted and atomized since 1970.
It is a time in Egypt when it is not welcome to write something serious that addresses serious issues. Everything borders on the ridiculous. Rhetoric has shifted to a medieval or primal state where basic values are being revisited. Is it OK to discard human rights because of the violence of non-state actors? Is it OK for the police to kill innocent civilians in the supposed act of protecting these same people from terrorism? Is it OK that we have a country without fair trials? Most of the time, in the state media, the answer is yes.
Walking through the alleys of Ramlat Bulaq, an old working-class neighborhood in northern Cairo close to the banks of the Nile, I encountered an 11-year old girl playing in front of her house with other children her age. She stopped me and said, “Do you know ‘Amr, the man who was killed? He used to get us candies. They said he was a criminal but he was not. He was angry because of ‘Ammar’s death.” I knew she was referring to ‘Amr al-Buni, a local youth shot by police in the course of this district’s long struggle against the encroachment of wealthy developers backed by the Egyptian state.
Over five tumultuous years in Egypt, the independent human rights community moved from a fairly parochial role chipping away at the Mubarak regime’s legitimacy, one torture case at a time, to media stardom in 2011, and from fielding a presidential candidate, who won over 134,000 votes, in 2012 to facing closure and the risk of prosecution two years later.