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In the new Egypt, the police still hew to their old torturing ways

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Khalil Hamra/AP

(Read caption) Egyptian protesters run from tear gas fired by riot police during clashes next to the presidential palace in Cairo, Friday. When Hosni Mubarak ruled Egypt, torture of suspects and citizens was commonplace among Egypt's police. Under President Mohamed Morsi, Egypt's institutions are pretty much identical to what they were in the Mubarak years.

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Over the weekend, the Egyptian state posed a question to the nation about a vicious beating that cops delivered to a man, captured on camera: "Who are you going to believe – us, or your own lying eyes?"

The police beating of Hamada Saber on Friday was carried live on Egyptian television and has since been rebroadcast dozens of times on the country's lively talk shows. But the sustained attack by a group of about eight cops on Mr. Saber, a middle-aged construction worker, was only unusual for Egypt in one respect: That it was captured on film.

This is a crucial point to keep in mind about Egypt. While the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi is now the president, Egypt's institutions are pretty much identical to what they were in the Mubarak years. Egypt's elites seem comfortable with a police force that often treats average people as cattle, rather than citizens they're sworn to protect. While there is tut-tutting when the occasionally spectacular case like Saber's hits the press, no one in power is fighting for an overhaul of the rotten police service.

The Saber case has followed the standard playbook. The first response of Egypt's Interior Ministry and the government of President Morsi was to suggest that the police had in fact been helping Saber escape from protesters, who the police alleged had attacked him, in front of the presidential palace. Astonishingly cynical? Yes. And completely typical.

The unresisting Saber was stripped of his pants (likely an attempt at sexual humiliation), beaten with fists and batons, dragged roughly off the pavement, and eventually thrown into an armored vehicle, under arrest. Nothing unusual there. That was standard operating procedure for Egyptian cops before the 2011 uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak and has remained so since.

Light punishments for police

Sexual torture is not uncommonly used in police stations, and punishments are light. In 2007, cops in Cairo filmed themselves beating and sodomizing a bus driver with a stick, to use as leverage to humiliate the driver, who they also had sentenced to three months in jail for "resisting arrest." When the footage leaked onto the Internet, public outrage forced a trial of the police. The two assailants received just three years in jail.

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In January 2011, just as the Mubarak regime was entering it's final days, Human Rights Watch detailed Egypt's police torture program in a 100-page report titled "Work on Him Until He Confesses': Impunity for Torture in Egypt".

"Criminal Investigations officers and State Security Investigations (SSI) officers, under the authority of the minister of the interior, are most often responsible for such abuse. This includes beatings, electric shocks, suspension in painful positions, forced standing for long periods, water-boarding, as well as rape and threatening rape to victims and their families," the group wrote.

That Saber was held in a military hospital, and while there appears to have been successfully leaned on to insist it was protesters, not the police, who attacked him, is also pretty standard. A horror of police stations and crossing the police is inculcated in most working class Egyptians, since the intersection of the police and their lives frequently involves paying a bribe or getting abused. He must have been terrified. There is generally impunity for police abuses, and sentences are light when there are convictions.

For instance just two of the police involved in the brutal murder of Khaled Said in 2010 were sentenced for his death. Their prison terms? Seven years. Mr. Said's murder was a key rallying point for the protesters who launched the uprising against Hosni Mubarak in Jan. 2011, with a powerful new set of activists drawn into politics through the "We Are All Khaled Said" Facebook page, which used Said as a symbol for the systematic abuses of the state.

His family believes he was murdered because he was involved in leaking a video taken inside Sidi Gaber that showed policemen dividing up marijuana they'd seized from drug dealers for resale. The beating, on the street in full view of witnesses, left Said's features unrecognizable and his head looking like a caved in melon. Yet just as with the beating of Saber last Friday, the cops tried to claim something else had happened. They said Said had choked to death on drugs he'd tried to swallow to hide from the police.

Saber, has since reversed course, and said that it was in fact the police who attacked and beat him. His fear was perfectly understandable.

In 2007, I wrote about Nasser Seddit Gadallah, an Egyptian plumber who made the mistake of complaining when he was beaten and robbed by a group of cops on the western outskirts of Cairo. Warned at the police station not to complain again, he persisted. A few days later, a group of about 10 cops showed up at his family's third-story apartment, and threw him headfirst to his death off the balcony, while his wife and 9-year-old son watched in horror. There were never any convictions.

Morsi quiet

President Morsi's relative silence on a crime that has infuriated millions of Egyptians is also right out of the past, as have been suggestions from the presidential office that the attack was an isolated incident. Predatory and brutal police behavior is one constant in Egypt, whether at protests, in police stations, or out on the beat.

Dealing with abuses in a piecemeal fashion, and only when they erupt into the headlines, is the old way of doing things. So far, the Muslim Brotherhood seems just fine with that.

One case to follow will be the apparent murder of Mohamed al-Gendy, a young member of the left-leaning Popular Current, who was abducted from Tahrir Square on Jan. 25. He turned up, unconscious and suffering from heavy internal bleeding, at a hospital in Cairo on Jan. 28 after being hurt in what the Health Ministry claimed was a car accident. Egyptian human rights activists and members of his party say his body showed signs of a serious beating and electric shock torture.

Mr. Gendy passed away on Feb. 4. Unfortunately, his case is far more typical than Saber's: no film.


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