Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Even Great Journalism Leaves Questions!

By William Fisher

A lot of the news coming out of Egypt these days is truly professional journalism at its best. And because it is at its best, it is also heart-breaking and maddening.

But regardless of how excellent some of the reporting has undoubtedly been, readers are left with nagging questions that just won’t go away. And maybe that’s as it should be, because it draws us in for more answers.

Last week, two of the best journalists covering the Egypt story filed spine-chilling accounts of former political prisoners and their relatives rampaging through the Ministry of Interior – which ran the security police and made the life and death decisions about torture – looking for the files of their loved ones. Some of those loved ones had been secretly executed. Some had been tortured until they died. Many had been “disappeared” and would probably never be heard from or about again.

Those journalists are Hannah Allam of McClatchy Newspapers and Andrea Bruce of The New York Times.

Here’s how Hannah Allam begins her piece, which is datelined Cairo:

“Trudging through dungeon-like cells and mounds of shredded documents, hundreds of Egyptians on Saturday surged into the Cairo headquarters of the dreaded State Security apparatus for an unprecedented look inside buildings where political prisoners endured horrific torture.”

“Some former prisoners sobbed as they saw their old cells, recalling electric
shocks and severe beatings. Families held passport photos of missing relatives and were desperate to explore the dank chambers for clues to their fates.”

How could you not read on?

Allam continued: “Dismantling State Security, the shadowy and all-powerful intelligence force, was a key demand of protesters who forced the resignation last month of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. When the military-led interim authority failed to dissolve the agency immediately, protesters in Cairo and the port city of Alexandria descended on State Security offices this weekend to seize files they hoped would cement Mubarak's legacy of prisoner abuse and disappearances.

"I thought my brother would be found there," said Leila Mahmoud, 47, who was distraught when she learned the buildings had been evacuated. "He was taken on
April 2, 2005, and we've been looking for him since then. We haven't heard a word from him since. Not a word."

“Security forces and the police routinely torture or ill-treat detainees, particularly during interrogation. In most cases, officials torture detainees to obtain information and coerce confessions, occasionally leading to death in custody."

“For those who jailed at the complex, the memories are haunting,” she says.
"I saw people's nails being ripped out and people hung from the ceiling by their arms or legs," said Adel Reda, 39, trembling as he recounted his nine months inside the complex. "They would throw our food in sand before giving it to us and splash us with cold water day and night. Sometimes it was so dark you couldn't see your hands."

When asked whether he was ever allowed access to an attorney, Reda raised his hands heavenward and replied: "My lawyer was God."

Allam’s piece goes on recounting citizen after citizen telling their stories of loved ones snatched from the beds or their offices or their cars, whisked to this torture factory, in all likelihood disappeared as if they had never lived.

I found the last three paragraphs of Allam’s piece particularly poignant.

“"My brother was detained because he was trying to send food and medicine to Gaza," said Ingy Qutb, 25. "They kept him three months and tortured him and..."

“Her voice broke and tears spilled onto her black veil. "This place must be destroyed," she said softly.

“Egypt’s once-powerful and feared interior minister, Habib el-Adly, pleaded not guilty Saturday to corruption charges in the first of an expected series of speedy, high-profile cases against ministers ousted with former President Hosni Mubarak.”

The New York Times’s Andrea Bruce toggled between the torture factory at the Ministry of the Interior and the trial of Habib al-Adly, Egypt's former interior minister, who appeared in court in New Cairo amid protestors chanting slogans denouncing him.

Bruce wrote, “That did not happen,” Mr. Adly calmly said twice when the judge asked whether he had profited illegally from his office and laundered money; the charges involve a total of about $1.6 million.”

“Dressed in a white prison uniform with a white cap on his head, Mr. Adly stood in the heavy metal cage that serves as the docket in Egyptian courts. It was an extraordinary sight in a country where Mr. Adly, until his Feb. 17 arrest, had controlled all police forces since he became interior minister in 1997.”

“As if to underscore the change, hundreds of protesters in Cairo stormed a
headquarters of the state security police, a hated organization that Mr. Adly
used to run. Protesters also took over or massed outside other security
compounds around the country, with one center in Alexandria going up in flames Friday night,” she wrote.

“At the courthouse, the proceedings were dominated by a group of often unruly lawyers, who had tacked public interest lawsuits onto the government’s case, seeking huge compensation for Interior Ministry victims.”

“This was Egypt’s executioner!” yelled Hussein Abou Eissa, a lawyer, at Judge Al-Mohammadi Qunsua, before hurling similar invective at the accused. The judge, known in Egypt for his independence, barked at the lawyers to remain orderly and quickly postponed the case until April 2.

The charges read by the prosecutor revolve around a piece of land the ministry controlled that it said Mr. Adly had sold to a private contractor working for the ministry, plus money found in his bank account that the government said did not belong there. Defense lawyers asked for more time to study the documents.”

She observed, “Few details seem too small to escape all manner of fly-on-the wall reports. One former minister ordered food delivered from home rather than eat prison swill, newspapers said. At one point, when Mr. Adly opened the tap in his cell and no water came out, a guard said it would start flowing “right now,” although it was still not working an hour later, the semiofficial newspaper Al Akhbar reported.”

“The word ‘now’ used to mean that things would happen within five minutes at the Interior Ministry,” the newspaper reported Mr. Adly yelling at his guards.”

“That’s over now,” one guard retorted and Andrea Bruce faithfully recorded.

Reading the entire stories filed by these two pros, one almost had the feeling of beginning to understand what was happening at ground level those thousands of miles away.

Yet, these stories left a great black hole. It was: Just who were these incredibly cruel, sadistic, bloodthirsty young men who were doing the torturing and the killing? Were they incredibly cruel, sadistic, bloodthirsty young men when they were hired? Or did they “grow into it,” as they say? If so, how and under whose tutelage?

Most important of all to understand: Were these people just “bad seeds?” Or were they conditioned by their lack of education, their poverty, their absense of opportunity, to be sociopaths? Or was it some other combination of factors?

We learned nothing about who they are. And it seems to me that information is essential if Egypt wants to avoid hiring the same types of jailers next time around.

Those of us who have lived and worked in Egypt accept that many Egyptians have two faces.

There is the face shown to the public, especially the expat or foreign tourist public. This is the face of charm, of impeccable manners, of open-handed hospitality, even among poor Egyptians, who are usually happy to share their food with you although they don’t have enough to feed themselves, and who are honored that you are visiting their home.

I have gone to the University of Cairo to talk to young undergrads about life in America, warts and all. There were, I was told later, half a dozen jihadis in the group. I was astonished when I learned that the young man who invited me to his home to continue the discussion over dinner was one of the hottest firebrand jihadis! He had some of his facts wrong, and I had a few, but we had a spirited and constructive conversation nevertheless. And I had the feeling we were talking to one another, not past one another.

Then, I’m told, there is the dark side. In my mind, the dark side consists of the dead-enders (HT Mr. Rumsfeld) who can not find employment other than employment that involves maiming and killing people, and getting off on the unspeakable sounds of unspeakable pain. As the attributes of these people were explained to me, the words took on an affinity with the vocabulary used to describe the really dangerous American street gangs. In other words, criminals in training.

Were these the people the Ministry of Interior was recruiting? If that’s the case, the Egyptian people need to know more about who they are and how they were motivated –so that Egypt never goes down that road again!