Egypt and The Secret Police

464 abductions by security forces in 2015, at least 676 of torture, 500 detainee deaths… or as Kerry puts it a “deterioration” of freedom

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.

On February 18, a Cairo policeman shot 24-year-old Muhammad Sayed in the head because the youth asked him for a few extra dollars to do the cop a favor. The policeman is facing murder charges. But, as in the United States, it’s common for Egyptian courts to acquit officers or send them away with a slap on the wrist.

Beatings and other abuses are rampant at the country’s police stations.

Last month, according to the heroic El-Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, a Cairo-based group, there were eight deaths in police custody — and almost 80 cases of torture. The group estimates that nearly 500 Egyptians died in police custody last year, and over 600 were tortured.

The awfulness of military strongman Abdul-Fattah al-Sisi’s of Egypt is becoming scarily clearer by the day. Lawlessness and police abuse of citizens is the norm. Disappearances, common. Torture, a tool of choice.

All this is done in the name of fighting terrorism and an Islamic-based armed rebellion. But of course, as befits a venerable pattern of dictatorship, there is always time to repress and frighten any regime critics, real or imagined.

The brazenness of secret police abuse in Egypt makes this wave of government repression especially frightening. It’s as if, having been driven off the streets by pro-democracy demonstrators in 2011, police are determined to remind Egyptians not only that they are back, but back with full impunity of action. Human rights activists inside and outside Egypt have decried the chronic abuse of the authorities, whose plainclothes agents now roam Cairo’s streets.

On February 19, Sisi himself seemed to acknowledge that something is rotten. He ordered his toothless parliament to produce a law holding police “accountable” for killing citizens.

His order followed the police shooting of a taxi drive over a fare dispute. Demonstrations broke out in the Darb El-Ahmar neighborhood of Cairo — despite the fact that since taking office in 2014, Sisi has cracked down on demonstrations of any sort. But there is nothing that scares the current Egyptian regime more than protests of angry poor people. Egyptian newspaper Al Masry Al Youm reported that a mob beat up the killer. He was transported to a hospital in “critical condition.”

Last week, thousands of doctors and their supporters gathered outside the Egyptian Medical Syndicate in Cairo calling for the prosecution of police officers who assaulted two doctors in Cairo’s Matareya hospital. The policemen attacked the physicians because they refused to authorize the officer’s extended sick leave.

The officers involved were questioned about the assault and then released.

Violent police are simply let off the hook. Courts failed to punish killers responsible for the deaths of hundreds of demonstrators in 2011. And impunity goes on. This month, Egypt’s highest court reversed a 15-year jail sentence handed down by a lower court to a policeman for killing in Alexandria Shaimaa Sabbagh, a demonstrator who marched during peaceful political protest in January, 2015.

Giulio Regeni, a 28-year-old Cambridge PhD student from Italy, was on his way to see a friend when he left his flat near Behoos metro station in Cairo on 25 January.

It was a tense day in the otherwise bustling neighbourhood on the western bank of the Nile, where street sellers hawk cheap plastic sunglasses, books and shoes from groaning tables.

That day marked the fifth anniversary of the beginning of the Egyptian revolution which overthrew Hosni Mubarak, and tension was palpable across the city after weeks of intense police activity aimed at scuppering any pro-democracy demonstrations.

It was also the last day Regeni was seen alive.

Nine days later – and days after the Italian foreign ministry announced that it was concerned about his mysterious disappearance – Regeni’s body was found in a ditch near a desert highway between Cairo and Alexandria. An examination of his body in Rome concluded that he was tortured before his death: he was burned, beaten, and mutilated. His nails had been ripped out and he suffered from broken ribs and a brain haemorrhage.

For experts who study Egypt and its infamous record on human rights, Regeni’s murder bears all the hallmarks of an extrajudicial killing by the state’s security police, who are believed to be behind the death of 474 Egyptians in 2015 alone.

But Regeni’s case stands out amid the catalogue of horrors: his murder is the first time such an act has happened to a foreign academic researcher working in Cairo, the kind of person who could have expected to be harassed or even deported for his work, but who would have been considered physically “protected” by his passport.

Aida Seif el-Dawla, a psychiatrist and co-founder of El Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, said that Regeni’s case bore all the hallmarks of police abduction and torture, such as the center sees on a regular basis and with increasing frequency.

“The cigarette burns, the marks from electric shocks, the fingernails pulled out, the dumping of the body — it’s all very common in these cases,” she said. Her center, which authorities ordered closed, is still partially operating but will not see patients until the close order is lifted.

“The phone keeps on ringing, the appointments are backing up,” she sa

Criticism of Egypt’s president has gathered momentum in recent weeks as Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi’s honeymoon in power appears to be ending.

The boldness of the criticism suggests that el-Sissi’s aura as the man who “saved the nation” from Muslim Brotherhood rule and the chaos of revolution has faded. Replacing it now is the image of a leader struggling to fix the economy, stop police abuses or suppress an insurgency by Islamic militants.

A recent speech in which el-Sissi seemed angry and frustrated was widely derided not only by social media mockery but also by powerful voices in the media who had backed el-Sissi’s rise to power.

“Mr. President and you gentlemen running the security agencies, you are wrong, and what you are doing will lead to the return of the Brotherhood. That will be hell for you and the people,” veteran politician Mohammed Abu el-Ghar wrote. “Read history and think a little, so we can all save Egypt.”

For nearly two years, the media commentariat, politicians, officials and religious leaders have pushed a message that any criticism of el-Sissi, his government or security agencies was tantamount to treason, undermining security.

El-Sissi vaulted to heroic status in the media when, as military chief, he led the army’s July 2013 ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi amid massive protests against political dominance by the Brotherhood. He then won the presidency in a landslide election victory.

Since then, he has waged a fierce crackdown, arresting thousands of Islamists and killing hundreds more and suppressing pro-democracy activists who fueled the 2011 uprising against autocrat Hosni Mubarak. Public protests have been effectively banned. Rights activists have raised alarm over widespread torture and secret detentions by police.

For nearly two years there was little outcry from the public as many supported any measures to restore stability. But a string of recent troubles has pointed to problems that are harder to explain away as caused by “enemies of Egypt.”

The downing of a Russian passenger jet — widely blamed on Islamic militants — highlighted security failures, and the government’s reluctance to acknowledge it as a terror attack raised criticism. The attack was a devastating blow to Egypt’s tourism industry, which further gutted the economy.

The culture of abuse inside security forces, meanwhile, may have landed el-Sissi’s government in an international scandal. An Italian graduate student, Giulio Regeni, disappeared on Jan. 25 and he was later found tortured to death.

Last week, the European Parliament passed a resolution that stopped just short of accusing Egyptian authorities of killing Regeni. Egyptian officials deny police were behind his death, but even some supporters in the media have cast doubt on the denials.

The government’s image was dented by a series of court rulings seen as outrageous. Among them, a young author was sentenced to two years in prison for the publication of sexually explicit excerpts from his novel — a step not taken under Mubarak or the Islamist Morsi. The sentence angered artists and intelligentsia who long cheered el-Sissi out of fear of Islamists.

“Your state is a theocracy, Mr. President,” columnist Ibrahim Eissa wrote. “Your state and its agencies, just like those of your predecessor, hate intellectuals, thought and creativity.”

El-Sissi has also appeared vulnerable in his government’s struggles to repair an economy deeply damaged by five years of turmoil.

The government has been forced to let the Egyptian pound’s official value slide to record lows. That has prompted public fears of price increases, given Egypt’s dependence on imports.

Another difficult question is how to deal with subsidies that eat up billions of dollars but are vital for millions of impoverished Egyptians. El-Sissi partially lifted fuel subsides last year without unrest, a tribute to his popularity. But another envisaged round of reductions may not go down so well as Egyptians cope with higher prices and unemployment.

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