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Torture By Egyptian Army May Be Business As Usual; Media Response Is Not

March 23, 2011

The Army and the People: No longer "one".

The army’s apology in February for harassing the protesters in Tahrir led many of the revolution’s planners to hope that this truly was an end of business as usual where government was concerned. The Mubarak regime never apologized.

But the seizure and torture of protesters on March 9—what many Egyptians call “the events of March 9” or “the Night at the Museum”—has ended most people’s hopes that the interim government was going to be significantly different than the prior regime.

To describe what was happening, the Washington Post reported the story of 25-year old Samira Ibrahim Mohamed:

Samira was handcuffed to a wall in the museum complex. For nearly seven hours — almost every five minutes, she said — Samira was electrocuted with a stun gun. Her torturers would sometimes splash water on her and others to make the shocks more painful. The electrical jolts were applied to her legs, shoulders and stomach. She pleaded with the soldier to stop. Repeating what the demonstrators had chanted in Tahrir Square, she said, “I begged them. I said, ‘You are my brothers. The army and the people are one.’” Her tormentor replied, “No, the military is above the nation. And you deserve this.”

William Dobson commented March 17:

Respected human rights organizations here claim that hundreds of people are being tried before military tribunals almost every day. These organizations say demonstrators, activists and even simple bystanders are being swept up in a broad campaign of military arrests. People caught in this indiscriminate military dragnet are taken to the military prosecution’s office, then to a military court, sentenced and moved to a jail cell. It can take no more than 5 hours for a person to receive a sentence of more than 5 years. These defendants have no legal representation. They have no access to case files. There is no examination of the evidence. The military’s desire to appear to be providing law and order has trumped any concern for how that law and order is administered.

The Guardian had reported Army detention and torture of protesters as early as Feb. 10 but many were released, and many Egyptians said they hoped it was a mistake or isolated incident. But it looks as if it is business as usual–in fact, worse than the Mubarak usual, since human rights activists at least knew how the old system worked. The military has never been part of the administrative apparatus, and no one has any knowledge of how to intervene in the system

The mainstream media, including state television and top newspaper Al-Ahram, in spite of its earlier claims to now belong to the people rather than the state, has failed to follow this story in any detail.

Many of the stories that have been published were based on Army statements. Protesters testified that they were brought out before reporters at a press conference, bruised and disheveled and “looking like thugs”. Clubs, knives and Molotov cocktails were placed on a table in front of them and the media were told the protesters were arrested for carrying these weapons.

General Hamdy Badeen gave an interview to the daily newspaper Al-Shorouk, the head of the military police, , stated that his men have never tortured anyone.

The military police does not torture or electrocute or any of the things alleged. Our role is to arrest those breaking the law and hand them to the investigative authority. We didn’t and won’t lay our hand on or point a gun towards any Egyptian citizen.

And since on March 23, the interim cabinet headed by Essam Sharaf imposed a gag order on the media, news on military arrests, tortures and secret trials will be even more deeply buried.

One thing has changed, however: the nature of the victims–and the tools at their disposal. The use of new media makes it more difficult to respond to accusations with simple denial, as the old regime did.

On Feb. 27, the blog 3arabawy posted a video of the army torturing detainees.

On March 17, several protesters gave public testimony about their experiences at Cairo’s Press Syndicate. Some, like that of Salwa Gouda, were videotaped, subtitled in English, and posted to Youtube:

Ali Sobhy, an Egyptian actor and  one of the early protesters in Tahrir Square also testified and kept in custody for four days.

But Sobhy wrote his testimony about these four days of torture and humiliation in Arabic and posted it to a Facebook page. It was subsequently translated into English and posted to another Facebook page.  

In his interview, General Badeen simply claimed that all this photographic and video evidence was fabricated.

The military is not, of course, a monolithic institution. It is certainly reasonable to assume that there are elements sympathetic to the revolution, and elements that despise it, as well as a range of opinions in between. If so, the inability of the 25 January coalition to win a “No” vote on the referendum has likely emboldened the hard liners in their efforts to place the military above the people.

Meanwhile, Amnesty International on March 23 called on Egypt to investigate the accusations it had collected of at least 20 women taken into custody and tortured:

Amnesty quoted 20-year-old Salwa Hosseini, who was arrested and forced with other women to remove her clothes and was searched by a female prison guard. She said women were subjected to virginity tests by a man in a white coat and were threatened with prostitution charges if they were found not to be virgins, Amnesty said.

Both Hilary Clinton, who visited Egypt last week, and William Gates, who visited Egypt this week, acknowledged having heard the reports (Clinton from some of the protesters themselves) and promised to urge Egypt’s interim government to toe the line on democracy.

One thing is clear: The popular slogan “The people and the army are one” is no longer true.

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