Shocking details – including video footage – have come to light of the brutal torture methods routinely used by Egypt’s security services.
A growing opposition movement in Egypt has united trade union activists, bloggers and members of the Muslim Brotherhood. In response, President Hosni Mubarak – a key US ally in the Middle East – has unleashed a wave of repression against them.
Thousands of Muslim Brotherhood activists have been rounded up and carted off to notorious prison camps, while democracy activists have been beaten by state security thugs for organising protests against proposed changes to the constitution.
But the regime of silence has been broken by Egyptian bloggers, who have posted mobile phone footage of torture in police stations. They have openly criticised Mubarak and named policemen involved in torture.
In a now notorious case, police officers sexually abused a man they had arrested over a minor traffic violation.
Emad el-Kabir, a 21 year old minibus driver, was sodomised by police officers – who filmed his torture and sent it to the mobile phones of his friends in order to humiliate him.
Instead Emad opted to go public with his allegations. The torture footage caused outrage in Egypt and opened the floodgates to similar video clips, including the torture of a woman.
On Monday the state prosecutor ordered the detention of Abdel Moneim Mahmoud, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and well-known journalist.
Mahmoud is accused of “defaming Egypt’s image” after he spoke out about his torture at the hands of the interior ministry at the recent Cairo Conference (Cairo Conference calls for resistance, 7 April).
The crackdown on critics include a four year jail sentence for 22 year old blogger Abdel Kareem Suleiman. He called Mubarak a dictator on his blog and criticised the director of the al-Azhar university in Cairo for suppressing freedom of speech. Kareem was convicted in February of “insulting Islam” and “sedition”.
The testimony by Egypt’s torture victims is backed up by an Amnesty International report into the country released on Wednesday of last week.
Amnesty estimates that there are up to 18,000 people held in Egyptian jails without trial – and some of them have been locked up for more than a decade. The human rights group cited evidence showing that torture was pervasive in Egypt’s police stations and prisons.
The revelations come as a further blow for Mubarak, who has tried to portray Egypt as a “progressive” country that embraces George Bush’s call for “democracy in the Middle East”.
Last month security police raided and closed down the offices of the Centre for Trade Union and Workers’ Services (CTUWS), an NGO that campaigns for trade union rights, in the Upper Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi.
This was followed a raid on CTUWS office in the Nile Delta town of Mahalla, the epicentre of a rising strike movement that has rocked the Egyptian regime.
Shift of approach
The closure of the union offices signals a shift in the state’s approach to the militant workers’ movement. Until now the regime has usually agreed to strikers’ demands, fearing the spread of unrest to other workers.
There are no independent trade unions in Egypt. The General Federation of Trade Unions (GFTU) is dominated by officials linked to the security services. Few independents manage to win positions in elections marked by fraud.
Strikes are illegal in Egypt under a draconian labour law endorsed in 2003. The law was passed in order to “attract more foreign investment”.
The workers in Mahalla and other Nile Delta towns are demanding the impeachment of their GFTU officials for trying to undermine their strikes.
Around 9,000 workers have resigned from the union and are threatening to launch an independent labour union – posing the biggest challenge to the GFTU since its establishment in 1957.
Independent trade unionists are being witch-hunted. Ashraf Abdel Wanis is one of the victims of the recent crackdown. He worked at the state owned Fayoum sugar factory.
The 500-strong workforce staged a successful two-day strike in June last year, during which Ashraf and his colleagues played a leading role. Ashraf was elected as a shop floor representative – but last month was sacked for “agitating among the workers”.
“The bosses feel confident because they are backed by government ministers who do not care about the poor. They are scared the workers are finally raising their voices to demand their rights,” said Ashraf.
Stop the repression in Egypt! Send urgent letters of protest to Mohamed Hosni Mubarak, President of the Arab Republic of Egypt, fax 0020 2795 8016 or 0020 2795 3192. Hossam el-Hamalawy is an Egyptian journalist. To read his blog go to arabist.net/arabawy/