Bloggers Against Torture
The video that circulated on Egyptian blogs this winter showed Emad Mohamed Ali Mohamed, a 21-year-old bus driver, lying on the floor stripped naked from the waist down--his hands bound behind his back and his legs held in the air. He screams and begs as he is sodomized with a stick while those around him, whose faces are not visible to us, taunt him.
Hours earlier, Ali Mohamed (known among friends as Emad al-Kabir) had been picked up by two plainclothes police officers in Bulaq al-Daqrur, a roughish slum in Giza, across the river from downtown Cairo's crumbling Europeanate area. The young man's offense was venturing to break up a scuffle between police officers and his cousin. Despite the inhospitable treatment he endured, al-Kabir was released thirty-six hours later with no charges to speak of. After all, torture of this variety is commonplace. Protesting its manifestations, or questioning the logic behind it, is usually met with a shrug, even contemptuous indifference.
And so, when it was announced in late December that the two police officers who had supervised the abuse, Capt. Islam Nabih and Cpl. Reda Fathi, had been detained and their case transferred to a criminal court for investigation, it seemed that something had changed. With the simple act of uploading the video to a blog, a web impresario known as Demagh MAK had unleashed a storm of attention both at home and abroad around the case of the diminutive, soft-spoken bus driver. A link to the video, passed around among activists and journalists and posted on YouTube (until it was removed for graphic content), was finally picked up by the more intrepid Egyptian independent papers as well as Arab satellite channels such as Al Jazeera and Dream TV. Even a handful of jihadi websites chimed in, fuming about the excesses of the infidel Egyptian regime. Within days, the video had taken on a life of its own.
Watching the revelations unfold, one couldn't help but think there was more to come. Sure enough, before long another leak--also spread via blogs--revealed a man (later identified as Ahmed Gad) receiving sharp slaps to the face from a belligerent officer. And then came the jarring image of a young woman, ostensibly a murder suspect, pleading for mercy while suspended from a stick held across two chairs, in what seemed a throwback to a medieval interrogation method. Whoever was behind the camera, presumably a police officer, seemed to relish the ability to capture the scene: As the woman screams "Please, ya basha!" (a sign of prostration) over and over, the camera moves in and out, making use, with abandon, of the zoom function.
Indeed, this may be just the beginning. Wael Abbas, a Cairo-based blogger who was among the first to post the torture videos, has received nearly a dozen additional videos since the beginning of December. Most have been forwarded anonymously, and most, like al-Kabir's, were captured with simple cellphone cameras.
I met Abbas in late December in Cairo, just as the stir created by the al-Kabir video was reaching its peak. "We know people get raped, beaten all the time. And who's going to stick up for a bus driver? But now it's public, and everyone is talking. The government has to do something. They've lost face," he explained.
Bloggers in the developing world have long been the subject of romantic odes in the Western press (give a young man a blog and he will start a revolution). While the capacity of digital technologies to jump-start democracy has often been exaggerated, recent events in Egypt demonstrate blogs' enormous potential as an advocacy tool and, more broadly, as an alternative source of news. Here, a number of bloggers seem to have cracked into a hitherto tightly sealed state monopoly on information dissemination, breaking stories in many cases before the mainstream press.
In this neighborhood, the official press dominates circulation numbers--with a single state-controlled paper producing up to 1 million copies a day, while the whole of the independent press puts out 10,000-40,000, according to Arab Press Freedom Watch. Though a handful of independent papers, such as Al-Dustour (whose editor, Ibrahim Issa, faces charges of "insulting the president") and Al Masry Al Youm (whose writers have faced similar charges), have managed to push the bounds of what is allowable in the public sphere, until recently it would have been unheard of to take on such subjects as torture carried out by officials without being summarily shut down.
But things are changing. In many cases blogs, working hand in hand with the modest independent press as well as satellite television channels ("We are the children of Al Jazeera," one blogger recently told me), have broken a number of big stories--from sectarian strife in Alexandria to state-sponsored violence during the last parliamentary elections, and even the type of routine crackdowns that occur during demonstrations. Together these forces have not only created an alternative source of information but have increasingly managed to shame the government into punishing those responsible for abuses. Since the leak of the notorious "slaps" video, the officer charged with the abuse of Gad, for example, has been suspended while his case is under investigation. The Interior Ministry, meanwhile, has publicly called for the identification of the pleading woman hanging from the stick, as well as the officers who carried out that abuse.
Still, whatever happens to the perpetrators of the recent spate of leaked abuses, torture will likely remain routine in Egypt for the time being. The sort of roughing up that takes place in dark alleys, security checkpoints and dingy police stations daily--normally targeting ordinary citizens--continues to pass unquestioned. Not only are torture and abuse tolerated; in the security services violence is broadly valued as a sign of authority, strength, bravado. It is not uncommon for lower-level officers to get promotions for such theatrics. In fact, the original video of al-Kabir appears to have circulated for months (the abuse was carried out in January 2006) among police officers and taxi drivers, Abu Ghraib-style, before it was leaked to the public. The images were likely shared for bragging purposes--and to serve as a sort of warning to those who would dare to tread on police turf, as al-Kabir had. It's hardly surprising that, following the video's wide circulation and al-Kabir's statements on a satellite television channel about his experience, he received a torrent of phone calls demanding his silence and threatening both him and his family.