Friday, June 25, 2010

Thousands gather peacefully in Alexandria

A long day is winding to a close in Alexandria, yet Ayman Nour's waterfront apartment is still buzzing. Media, friends, al-Ghad members, and activists fill the reception. Tea, cake, and croissants are devoured by the exhausted group as Nour appears for yet another interview. There is laughter, and smiles on everyone's faces despite the exhaustion.

There were no arrests today. There was no police brutality. And oh, was there a protest.

I've heard estimates that there were 4,000 people at the Sidi Gabr Mosque in Alexandria today. I can't offer my own estimates, as I spent the first half of the demonstration smack in the middle of a sea of people. I can, however, testify that it was indeed a sea of people.

Popular opposition figure Mohamed El-Baradei made a brief appearance at the mosque. Ayman Nour, George Ishak, and Hamdeen Sabbahi were there as well, along with literally thousands of Egyptians.

Around 7:30pm this evening, I watched at least 800 people march single-file down the Mediterranean city's sea-side main road. Men, women, young, old. Entire families, complete with small children. Most of them wore black.

El-Baradei again made his typical momentary appearance, and Ayman Nour walked the sidewalks of the corniche with the silent demonstrators for more than an hour.

The death of Khaled Said has brought everyday Egyptians to the streets. The usual group of 200 activists has swollen. And in Alex, unpoliticized youth have found a new means of protest: standing silently along the corniche, wearing black, and praying for Khaled's soul.

Today has been an exhausting day, and it is time I head back to Cairo.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Brutal death of young Egyptian raises questions

Egyptian bloggers and independent and opposition media have been widely publicizing the death of 28-year-old Khaled Said over the past few days.

Last Sunday, June 6, 2010 Khaled died. According to most interpretations of the story, Khaled was brutally murdered by two plainclothes police officers who confronted him in broad daylight at an Internet cafe in Alexandria. This article in the New York Times reports that according to Khaled's family the young businessman was killed because he was in possession of a video which clearly showed the two officers who assaulted him dividing the spoils of a drug bust amongst a group of people including themselves (the video can be viewed here). The article says:
The officers slammed [Khaled's] head against a table, dragged him outside, smashed his head against a metal door and continued to beat him even after he was dead.
Ahmed Badawy, an Egyptian activist and acquaintance of mine, went to the Internet cafe on Friday and interviewed its owner. The owner revealed that Khaled had been clearly targeted by the men who assaulted him, who blocked the doors of the cafe to prevent anyone entering.

Khaled's body was dumped outside his home later that evening.

The government's position:
The official statement from the Egyptian Ministry of Interior calls the story a "malicious allegation" which may "deliberately omit all the facts and persist in promoting lies and misinformation." The statement says Khaled swallowed a bag of narcotics and consequently died of asphyxiation. It also reveals that Khaled had been charged with two misdemeanors, stealing and possession of a weapon, in addition to harassment of a woman and dodging military service (compulsory in Egypt). Egyptian activists have questioned the reality of the charges.

The Ministry's statement does not address the dumping of Khaled's body outside his home, nor does it explain the disturbing images of his mangled skull. The images, which are extremely graphic and should be viewed with discretion, have been widely circulated and can be found here.

An article in government-run Al-Gomhuria insists the injuries to Khaled's face were caused during autopsy when his throat was cut open to remove the packet of hashish he had swallowed. The article calls the images' appearance on Facebook a "big surprise." It is a difficult explanation to accept after viewing the gruesome images.

Popular outcry
"If you oppose the government in Egypt, one of three things happens: one, you disappear. Two, you end up dead. Or three, you disappear and then you end up dead," an Egyptian friend cynically commented to me in casual conversation one day. To an extent, Khaled Said's story fits the model - and consequently is no different from others.

Yet Khaled's story is also fundamentally different.

Khaled's story has been publicized. Khaled "died amidst the shock and silence of everyone," wrote Ayman Nour on Thursday. Nour, along with Egyptian paper el-Shorouq, was the first to break the story nearly four days after Khaled's death. Since then, it has flooded Egyptian activist circles, independent media, and Facebook inboxes. There is no longer silence surrounding Khaled's death.

The incident has drawn an outcry from Egyptians, including many who are normally inactive in politics. A Facebook group called My Name is Khaled Mohammed Said has drawn more than 110,000 members over the past three days - the group grew by nearly 3,000 members in the time it took me to write this post - and an event calling for a protest in front of the Ministry of Interior on Sunday, June 13 has nearly 5,000 confirmed attendees.

Scores of Egyptians have changed their profile pictures to images of Khaled, such as the one at the top of this post.

A protest yesterday in Alexandria drew around 1,000 people according to blogger and activist Mohamed Abdelfattah, who attended the protest, and well-known blogger Zeinobia says police dared not come close to the demonstrators for fear of increasing their anger.

"This could happen to anyone."
Despite a general consensus that Egyptian police were responsible for his death, Khaled's story still falls outside my friend's generalization: Khaled was not political. According to the New York Times article, Khaled was intent on publicizing the video he had come to possess, but he was not an activist. He was not opposing the government.

Khaled walked beside the wall, as an Egyptian would say, referring to one who minds his own business.

Despite "walking beside the wall," Khaled was killed by a police force imbued with the power of the Emergency Law, a cause of concern for other young Egyptians. "He didn't look for trouble, yet corruption killed him anyway," said my friend Hatem, a 22-year-old Egyptian currently studying for his Master's degree. "Maybe they've done worse things before, but this directly threatens me: this is a young guy who comes from almost the same background as me and most of my friends. He does the same things that I do. He stays out of trouble. And yet - this. You know?" he told me.

For Hatem, Khaled's death means "this could happen to anyone."

Questions which remain
Nearly a week after Khaled's death, many questions remain. How did Khaled come into possession of the video for which he was supposedly killed? The video was clearly filmed by someone trusted in the room, someone who almost certainly was not Khaled. So was he given the video, or did he somehow happen across it?

What will the government's response be? Will the officers in question be charged with corruption, if not murder? Or will they walk away unscathed? According to a post by Mohamed Abdelfattah, this was not the first act of brutality committed by one of the men who assaulted Khaled (please note, link contains graphic images).

It would seemingly be easier to let the officers take the fall for Khaled's death in the face of the current media onslaught, but there has been no indication thus far that the government intends to make such a move. Why is the regime letting Khaled's death become a rallying point, instead of meting out some form of justice which might placate activists? In some ways this is only the most recent incident hinting at growing discord within the regime.

Khaled's death is drawing attention. What will Egyptians do about it? There have been calls of "revolution" since Kefaya's first demonstration in 2005, but the said revolution has yet to materialize. Even so, 2010 has seen increasing numbers of protests and increasing numbers of protesters. This week, Egyptians already angered by Israel's assault on the aid convoy headed for Gaza quickly took up the cause of one of their own. If Alexandria's demonstration was any indication, tomorrow's protest in Cairo could bring thousands of Egyptians to the streets.

What's next, Egypt?

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