06.30.11

Violence in Egypt

More than 1,000 people injured in the worst clashes between protesters and security forces since the spring revolution. Ursula Lindsey reports from Cairo on the troubling tensions.

Clashes between protesters and police have left more than 1,000 people wounded, scarring downtown Cairo with debris and checkpoints and reminding residents of the uprising against President Hosni Mubarak earlier this year.

The fighting was sparked Tuesday evening when relatives of those killed during the revolution began a march from Tahrir Square, site of the 18-day sit-in that ousted Mubarak to the nearby Ministry of Interior, and were met with tear gas and rubber bullets from police. Pitched stone-throwing battles ensued, and riot police charged the demonstrators.

“They drove armored trucks fast into the crowd, fired tear gas directly at us, and charged us,” says journalist and blogger Jano Charbe. A police officer abused the protesters over a megaphone, calling them “sons of whores.”

The clashes--which continued to the next day and led a few hundred protesters to re-occupy the square--are the result of many Egyptians’ angry belief that the police will never be brought to justice for their actions. Families of some of the more than 850 Egyptians killed during the revolution went wild when earlier this week the trial of former Minister of Interior Habib Al Adli was once again postponed.

Some police officers are on trial for shooting demonstrators, but only one has been convicted—in absentia—so far. Some officers who have charges against them haven’t even been suspended from work.

Among the protesters “people were saying 'Why aren’t police officers convicted? Why are they still going to work?' ” says Human Rights Watch researcher Heba Morayef, who was in Tahrir Square today.

“Families’ anger is understandable because of the uniform impunity that characterized the Mubarak era,” says Morayef. “They feel they need to fight to get justice.”

Some Egyptians have lost faith in the country’s military leaders, who have been criticized for the opaque and slow-moving judicial process, and for administering “virginity tests” to female protesters and trying thousands of civilians in military courts since the revolution. The rising tensions threaten to make the country too insecure and unstable to successfully hold parliamentary elections scheduled for September (many political parties are calling for delaying them).

There have also been many reports that families of victims of police shootings are being pressured to drop their cases against the police. Officers or their representatives have reportedly offered families payments of up to $17,000. They’ve also used threats, saying they will arrest other family members on trumped-up charges. Witnesses in some cases have changed their testimony. To see such practices reoccurring, says Morayef, “raises immediate alarm bells.”

Rampant police brutality was one of the main grievances behind the popular insurrection that took place here five months ago. Today, the Ministry of Interior is supposedly going through a reform process. It has invited human-rights groups to its headquarters and promised Egyptians will no longer be spied upon, tortured, and illegally detained as in the past. Police stations hand out glossy booklets about citizens’ rights and obligations under the law.

Egyptians have lost faith in the country’s military leaders, who have been criticized for the opaque and slow-moving judicial process, and for administering “virginity tests” to female protesters.

But many here feel these changes are only cosmetic. Police officers maintain that they only shot protesters in self-defense; Ministry of Interior officials have yet to announce what practical steps they are taking to eradicate a culture of lawlessness.

Everyone’s hopes are pinned on the courts. “This really is the core battle of the transitional phase,” says Morayef, “between the impunity of the Ministry of Interior or military officer who’s always been above the law, versus empowering the judiciary to reaffirm the fact that every officer from now on will be held accountable.”

The final ruling in what has been a landmark police brutality case has also been postponed once again. Khaled Said, 28, was beaten to death last June after posting a video to YouTube of police officers divvying up drugs, his family and friends say.

“They wanted revenge,” says Mohammed Mahmoud, 28, a relative of Said’s. “They waited at the cafe by his house and when they started punching him he yelled 'You are killing me.' They said 'Yes, we are here to kill you.' "

Photographs of Said’s terribly battered face sparked a national uproar. A clumsy coverup (including an autopsy report that claimed the young man had killed himself by swallowing drugs) only fanned the flames. Said became the symbol of police abuse, of an unaccountable regime running amok. Google executive and online activist Wael Ghoneim created the “We Are All Khaled Said” group, which helped organize the protests against Mubarak and today has more than a million members.

The police tried everything, says Mahmoud, to get the Said family to drop the case: “They threatened us, offered us money, offered land as a bribe. They cut the power and electricity and frightened everyone who lives around our building.”

The trial “has taken a long time,” says Mahmoud. “It’s been almost a year. Who knows if they will make us wait longer.” But today’s postponement was done to allow a new autopsy to be carried out; the charges may be raised from manslaughter to murder. “It is moving in the right direction for the first time. Now we have more hope.”

Meanwhile, Mahmoud has advice for the families of others killed by the police: “They have to be strong, they have to be steadfast,” he says. “They have to pursue their rights.”

“We didn’t think we would get justice. But we didn’t give up, and that’s what made Khaled the symbol he is and led to Mubarak’s downfall.”