Egypt’s police system could perhaps be understood through the following motif: a police officer with a gun in one hand — connoting explicit violence and brutality — and a flower in the other, displaying a façade of national care and protection. This is the most precise visual metaphor for a system that deprives each and every citizen who exhibits any identity or belief opposing those systematically inculcated and favored by the authorities in power, while publicly and internationally claiming its due respect to human rights. A system that incarcerates and murders innocent people in the name of its “counter-terrorism efforts.” A system that claims to oversee morality and religious and traditional values, while it abducts, harasses, and rapes.
In brief, a system that kills you with a gun in one hand, and claims it cares about you and protects you with a flower in the other.
A system that murders you with a smile on its face.
In order to understand the current state of policing in Egypt, it’s important to have at least a brief background of Egypt’s recent police history and some of the political upheavals that shaped this system. This is best understood by addressing three important eras in the history of modern Egypt. The first era includes the years before the January 25 Revolution, which began when Hosni Mubarak became Egypt’s president in 1981 and lasted until he was overthrown during the revolution of 2011. The second era is the reign of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), Mohamed Morsi, and rule of The Muslim Brotherhood, which extended from immediately after the revolution until the end of Morsi’s presidency in 2013. This era is considered to be highly influenced by The Muslim Brotherhood, a transnational Sunni Islamist organization with a political agenda founded in Egypt by Islamic scholar Hassan al-Banna, as Morsi was one of their members and followed their legacy. At the start of the third era, former Minister of Defense Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s military-backed regime organized to overthrow Morsi in 2013. Al-Sisi and the military hold power to this day.
Undoubtedly, corruption, scandals, and police and prison systemic violence legacy extend back to regimes before Mubarak. But Mubarak’s era witnessed a rapid increase in police violence and corruption. His regime introduced new and more intense forms of torture within Egypt’s police and prison system.
Pre-25 January 2011 Revolution (Hosni Mubarak’s regime) (1981–2011)
Although the 25 January Revolution transpired for numerous reasons including poverty, unemployment, inheritance of power, and corruption, the milestone that led millions of protesters to the streets was the murder of Khaled Saeed, which represented decades of police brutality and corruption in Egypt. Saeed was a 28-year-old man from Alexandria who was beaten to death while in police custody. The authorities claimed that he suffocated after swallowing hashish while resisting his arrest. Pictures of Saeed’s disfigured body went viral on social media afterward, making it extremely difficult for the public to believe that he died by anything but brutal and inhumane torture.
Eight months after Saeed’s murder, another case reignited rage among the Egyptian public. Sayed Belal — another young man, 30 years old — was abducted from his house and tortured to death, his corpse returned back to his family the day after. Belal was “a suspect” in a bombing attack on a church, and even after his death, the police could not produce enough evidence to prove that he committed the crime.
These two cases give us a glimpse into Mubarak’s police system. It was based on both problematic constitutional pillars as well as oppressive unconstitutional additions. These conditions were systematically designed to suppress any political opposition to the regime.
The Emergency Law, for example, is a law that dismissed basic human rights and led to the arbitrary arrest and murder of thousands like Saeed and Belal while they were held in police custody. As its name implies, the Emergency Law was first used in 1967 because of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the state of emergency the country experienced during the 6-Day War. However, Mubarak’s regime continued to enact this law throughout the 30 years of his presidency in order to cease any opposing protests and to target political activists, members of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Salafi movement — a reform branch within Sunni Islam that, in modern Egypt, advocates for a puritanical form of Islamic rule.
The main articles of the Emergency Law give police officers the permission to arrest any “suspects” from the street without having to state any reasons. Arrestees’ rights are automatically suspended and they can be detained in unofficial facilities for extended periods without their lawyers or trials. The law also limits any gatherings in the streets without permission from police security forces. Many political arrestees were interrogated using force and torture in order to leak information about their organizations or to admit crimes they might have no relation with.
Another pillar upholding this system are groups of “righteous civilians,” or “Baltagya” (an Egyptian slang word meaning thugs) who beat protestors in the streets. One accident that molded the collective memory of sexual harassment in Egypt — especially among feminists and journalists — was the Black Wednesday case. In May of 2005, a number of Egyptian journalists decided to hold a peaceful protest in front of the Journalists’ Syndicate in order to protest the constitutional amendments that were going to pave the way for the inheritance of power to Mubarak’s son. Suddenly, the police security cordon that was surrounding the protestors was cleared, a number of Baltagya with sticks got off a public bus, and started beating all protestors. Women, however, were a special target of interest. The Baltagya sexually assaulted many of the female journalists, tore off their clothes, and beat them.
Former Interior Minister Habib El-Adly played a major role in orchestrating attacks on protesters. He was Mubarak’s right-hand man from 1997 until 2011. In addition to turning Egyptian police stations and prisons into inhumane realities, El-Adly was also accused of multiple corruption cases, one of them involving the illicit gain of almost 2 billion Egyptian pounds (approx. $100 million in 2010).
Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), Mohamed Morsi’s regime, and The Muslim Brotherhood (2011-2013)
On Feb. 11, 2011, after about a month of protests that started on Jan. 25, Mubarak decided to step down and assign the country affairs to The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). Apart from the positive public spirit filled with hopes of change, police reforms, and a better future, there was ultimately little difference between SCAF’s ruling years (2011-2012) and Mubarak’s regime before it. SCAF perpetuated some of the old police tactics. For instance, the SCAF re-introduced the Emergency Law with new amendments on Sept. 12, 2011. The council claimed to be protecting national security, but their main goal was to erupt clashes between protestors and police and army forces. These new amendments were obviously targeted at silencing and detaining political activists. While the old law did, on paper, state that the emergency law is targeted at terrorism and drug trafficking cases, the amended one included cases such as the sabotage of institutions and transportation, the obstruction of roads, and the deliberate broadcasting or spreading of false news, rumors or statements. Most of these cases were vaguely defined, therefore, they were easily used against political activists in order to impede any subsequent protests of the revolution.
A major scandal that happened during the SCAF era was the Forced Virginity Tests for women protestors. On March 9, 2011, military forces cleared a peaceful sit-in and arrested 17 women protestors. The women’s testimonies included that they were tortured, given electric shocks, subjected to strip searches in front of male soldiers, and then submitted to forced virginity tests and threatened with prostitution charges. In response, many activists from the revolution denounced SCAF. This was one of several times in which the military interfered directly in the streets. This, along with a later string of military trials for civilians, foreshadowed how the military-police complex and its benefactors would create a dreadful atmosphere for political activists in the streets, inside police facilities, and in the military courts through the years to come.
On June 30, 2012, Mohamed Morsi, a key member of The Muslim Brotherhood, won the first democratic presidential elections in Egypt. Morsi remained in office until June 30, 2013 when he was removed by a military coup aligned with public demonstrations against him and his regime. During Morsi’s era, the police system stayed intact and the president and his regime continued praising its efforts. The Muslim Brotherhood is one of the main organizations that police in Egypt have historically oppressed, but it couldn’t implement any noteworthy change in the police system and its dynamics. For instance, even though Morsi held office, his minister of interior had also served the regime that he replaced. This was because of political inexperience, unqualified methods, and a weak grip on power that marked Morsi’s regime. But it is also largely because of the complexity and strong authority of the police structure. It is a long-established system where corruption is rooted inside its generals and sprouted in all its sergeants. Therefore, it was almost impossible to reform it entirely within Morsi’s single year.
Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s Military-Backed Regime (2014-present)
If the SCAF era foreshadowed the military-police complex, the inauguration of this bloodthirsty collaboration was the 2013 military coup against Morsi, led by then-Director of Military Intelligence — and eventual president — Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
Soon after the coup, glimpses of this new atrocious system started to appear. The first and perhaps most shocking of these was the Rabaa Massacre on Aug. 14, 2013. After al-Sisi threw Morsi from power, Morsi’s supporters did not surrender easily and decided to take to the streets and organize sit-ins that lasted for six weeks. Protestors were warned previously to clear the sit-ins, but when they persisted, military and police forces used violence, tear gas, bombs, rooftop snipers, bulldozers, and water cannons to disperse the sit-ins. This horrific event has been condemned by a majority of countries and human rights organizations. In fact, some minor protests and violent attacks on police stations happened afterward all over Egypt as a response. Nevertheless, the police and armed forces ceased almost all of them and the Egyptian Armed Forces announced a curfew and a state of emergency immediately.
Unfortunately, things returned back to “normal” as they were before Jan. 25 — perhaps even worse. Human Rights Watch affirmed that al-Sisi’s regime is one of the worst and most oppressive regimes in decades. This new regime’s insanity reached its peak when thousands of protestors were arrested in 2019 while demanding al-Sisi’s resignation after passage of a constitutional amendment to extend his presidency beyond 2024.
A peaceful protest became a privilege that Egyptians cannot practice. Actually, protesting has since become quite futile as the current regime — especially after the Rabaa Massacre — has no shame in killing protesters in front of everyone’s eyes, as they did to activist Shaimaa al-Sabbagh in 2015. The international response has also been very passive. More foreign funds and support have been provided for the regime, which resulted in the Egyptian military taking 9th place in the Global Fire Power Military Strength Ranking in 2020 — a ranking of 138 nations based on their potential war-making capability across land, sea, and air. As recently as last June, and despite the disappearance and murder of a 28-year old Italian graduate student living in Egypt under al-Sisi’s regime, the Italian government moved forward with the sale of warships to Egypt with an estimated value of over $1 billion. And finally, it should never be forgotten who Trump’s favorite dictator is.
Sadly, not even a tiny portion of the resources that go towards warships get invested in renovating prisons to accommodate the needs of this rapid increase of detainees. Rather, inhumane detention conditions and medical negligence became one of the main characteristics of most prisoners’ experiences. Most of the prisons lack medical facilities and staff to the extent that some prisons have as few as one nurse. Shady Habash, an Egyptian 25-year-old filmmaker who got detained for producing a video clip for a song opposing al-Sisi’s regime, was killed by “slow death” in prison; in fact, this expression became more popular as many prisoners died because of medical negligence and systemic physical and mental torture while imprisoned. Habash was left suffering from intoxication for more than three days without seeing any doctors. A call went out to his family an hour before he died, and of course, they were not able to save his life either.
When it comes to “normal” detention conditions, most prisoners suffer from maltreatment, deprivation of food, very narrow and crowded cells, withholding of medication and books, and limited access to sunlight or exercise. Prisoners’ families are not treated with any mercy either. The process of visits or delivering goods inside the prison is often burdensome. Families get harassed and have to wait for hours in order to get in touch with their detained loved ones. And if you are a family member of a political activist, the harassment and arbitrary procedures are intensified. Since the COVID-19 outbreak, family visits and calls have been suspended, and letters are the only means of communication. However, even sending a letter inside is not an effortless process for everyone.
At the end of last month, Laila Souief — a university professor and the mother of a prominent activist named Alaa Abd El-Fattah from the 25 January Revolution — got beaten with her two daughters while protesting outside of El-Fattah’s place of detention in order to receive a letter he wrote. Moreover, when she and her daughters went to file a complaint to the public prosecutor, her younger daughter, Sanna Seif, got abducted by plainclothes police who later interrogated her, accused her of spreading false news and advocating for terrorism, and then detained her. After some days, Laila Souief finally received a letter from her son while her daughter is still detained.
Abd El-Fattah’s family is perhaps one of the most prominent political families in Egypt who have been long fighting for freedom and against oppression. Such maltreatment of them is not random, it is systematic and intentional. This is what The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights called in one of its reports “using places of detention as tools of political revenge to settle accounts with opponents,” and argued for human rights organizations to force the Egyptian police and military to stop using such strategies.
In fact, settling accounts with opponents is not the sole aim of the current regime. Rather, their aim is to eliminate each and every entity that threatens their power. As the Egyptian activist Sarah Hegazi wrote: “Anyone who is different than male, pro-al-Sisi, Sunni, and heterosexual is most probably rejected, suppressed, stigmatized, arrested, exiled, or killed.”
Hegazi herself suffered from being the absolute opposite of everything the regime favors. She was an Egyptian communist, human-rights and LGBTQ+ activist, who took her own life on June 14, 2020 while exiled in Canada. Hegazi left Egypt in 2018 after being arrested, detained, tortured, and sexually assaulted in response to her raising a rainbow flag at a concert in Egypt.
Many of the LGBTQ+ members who get detained experience physical and mental torture on a number of levels. For instance, Malak al-Kashif, a trans woman activist who was arrested in 2019, was subjected to forced anal examination and sexual and mental assault. Additionally, the prison system refused to accept her reclaimed identity as a woman and jailed her in the male detention cells.
But especially after Hegazi raised the rainbow flag, there has been an intense crackdown on the LGBTQ+ community in Egypt. Police officers utilize unconstitutional tactics such as making fake accounts on dating apps in order to trap members of the community and arrest them.
While the police system in the U.S. is perhaps different than the one in Egypt in tactics and strategies, both structures are pretty much the same when it comes to their main aim: the constitutional oppression of any opposition. This perhaps applies to most police systems in the world, too; in fact, the international policing system seems to be more interdependent than we know. It is no surprise that the U.S. has always supported regimes in Egypt since the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt in 1978. Throughout Mubarak’s presidency, the U.S. continued to support the regime even though the number of political prisoners was on the rise. Even when Morsi was overthrown by a military coup, the Obama administration decided to turn a blind eye to such an undemocratic exercise and claimed its support of al-Sisi and the military. This support is likely backed by economic gains for the US. Several weaponry and arms selling agreements have been established between the U.S. and Egypt since 2011. In addition, some of the U.S. aid to Egypt was given under the name of “homeland security;” such fluid phrasing suggests that the aid could have gone towards providing the Egyptian regime with helicopters, border control technology, surveillance sensors, or materials for constructing more jails.
But to understand how to best confront the injustices of our police systems, we can ponder the words of activist and scholar Angela Davis. In one of her interviews, Davis is asked about any examples of fair police and prison systems in the world in her view. She says: “Well, one can see promises in indigenous communities, restorative justice practices, and transformative justice practices — one can see the promise of a different idea of justice. But if you’re asking about a developed justice system in the global north, I would say no, we cannot see this. And this is precisely the reason why we need to allow our imagination to lead us in a direction that may mean that we want something that has never actually existed in the world before.”
This is exactly our task. When it comes to our systems of justice, we need to imagine and structure a reality that never existed before.