Saturday, February 12, 2011

Democracy? Not So Fast!

By William Fisher

Hey, I’m about the last guy in the world to rain on Egypt’s parade. I love the place – I used to live there. Its people are kind, smart, funny, hospitable, caring. The country has just about unlimited potential. What that non-violent army of mostly young people achieved in Tahrir Square and elsewhere was straight out of the movies. Things like this aren’t supposed to happen in real life.

But happen it did. Which means that after a couple of days of whatever wild brand of euphoria they choose, the brave folks who dumped Hosni Mubarak and his entire entourage have a nation to build. And huge problems to solve.

Even seen from 30,000 feet, those problems look daunting enough. Forty per cent of Egyptians live below the poverty line. University graduates are driving taxis and many haven’t ever had a job – or even a job interview –using the skillsets they acquired at University.
Many smart young people who have the airfare have fled to Europe and the US.

Government-sponsored children’s education is a travesty. Schools without books. Underpaid, under-qualified teachers. Public health care underfunded and under-staffed for years. Unemployment officially at 9 per cent and change; unofficially, closer to 50 per cent.

The concentration of wealth is mind-boggling: The wealthiest five per cent of Egyptians control an overwhelming part of the nation’s wealth. Forty per cent of the rest of the country lives below the poverty line. The divide between the super-rich and the super-poor has become a chasm, and corruption – both petty corruption and big ticket corruption is ubiquitous; it prices ordinary people out of normal living and makes Egyptian businesses embarrassingly uncompetitive with the rest of the world.

Issue by issue, Egypt’s new government, when it appears, is going to have to tackle all these problems in some kind of priority order. But even before that happens, there is a problem that needs to be – and can be – tackled beginning right now. That is not to say it’s an easy problem to solve, because solving it is going to require a change in behavior, a change in culture – and cultural changes are the most difficult to effect and take the longest amount of time to bear fruit.

The problem is police brutality. And the State-sanctioned impunity that accompanies it. It shows its ugly face at many levels of “law enforcement.” It is counter-productive. It puts Egypt’s most sadistic, misanthropic, and mentally ill people in positions of power where they can exercise their life-threatening skills with total impunity.

During the 17-day occupation of Tahrir Square, some 300 protesters lost their lives. A few were hit with rocks or petrol bombs. But most of those who died were picked up by the police and thrown in jail. There, they were beaten and tortured. Many of them never made it out.

Next time we hear of the great respect the protesters have for the Egyptian military, it would be useful to remember that the abusers and torturers and murderers who caused these deaths in detention were Military Police – the cops of the Army. Exactly the same group that used to be Mubarak’s Army. Chances are we’ll never know for sure who gave these guys their marching orders.

Now, every military organization has military police and a criminal investigation division, however named. But there is no need for these units to become medieval murder machines. I know; I used to be a military cop. What I learned is that these torture machines don’t happen by spontaneous combustion; someone plans for them and encourages them. And, today, two days after the resolution, these people are still there.

Here is a report by Britain’s Guardian newspaper. It is so illustrative of the problem and so totally chilling in its content that I am presenting it here in its entirety:

Thursday, February 10, in the heart of the uprising.
“The Egyptian military has secretly detained hundreds and possibly thousands of suspected government opponents since mass protests against President Hosni Mubarak began, and at least some of these detainees have been tortured, according to testimony gathered by the Guardian.

The military – accused of involvement in torture – has always claimed to be a neutral force in the conflict. The military has claimed to be neutral, merely keeping anti-Mubarak protesters and loyalists apart.

“But human rights campaigners say this is clearly no longer the case, accusing the army of involvement in both disappearances and torture – abuses Egyptians have for years associated with the notorious state security intelligence (SSI) but not the army.

“The Guardian has spoken to detainees who say they have suffered extensive beatings and other abuses at the hands of the military in what appears to be an organized campaign of intimidation. Human rights groups have documented the use of electric shocks on some of those held by the army.

Egyptian human rights groups say families are desperately searching for missing relatives who have disappeared into army custody. Some of the detainees have been held inside the renowned Museum of Egyptian Antiquities on the edge of Tahrir Square. Those released have given graphic accounts of physical abuse by soldiers who accused them of acting for foreign powers, including Hams and Israel.

“Among those detained have been human rights activists, lawyers and journalists, but most have been released. However, Hussar Begat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights in Cairo, said hundreds, and possibly thousands, of ordinary people had "disappeared" into military custody across the country for no more than carrying a political flyer, attending the demonstrations or even the way they look. Many were still missing.

"Their range is very wide, from people who were at the protests or detained for breaking curfew to those who talked back at an army officer or were handed over to the army for looking suspicious or for looking like foreigners even if they were not," he said. "It's unusual and to the best of our knowledge it's also unprecedented for the army to be doing this."

“One of those detained by the army was a 23-year-old man who would only give his first name, Ashram, for fear of again being arrested. He was detained last Friday on the edge of Tahrir Square carrying a box of medical supplies intended for one of the makeshift clinics treating protesters attacked by pro-Mubarak forces.

"I was on a side street and a soldier stopped me and asked me where I was going. I told him and he accused me of working for foreign enemies and other soldiers rushed over and they all started hitting me with their guns," he said.

“Ashram was hauled off to a makeshift army post where his hands were bound behind his back and he was beaten some more before being moved to an area under military control at the back of the museum.

"They put me in a room. An officer came and asked me who was paying me to be against the government. When I said I wanted a better government he hit me across the head and I fell to the floor. Then soldiers started kicking me. One of them kept kicking me between my legs," he said.

"They got a bayonet and threatened to rape me with it. Then they waved it between my legs. They said I could die there or I could disappear into prison and no one would ever know. The torture was painful but the idea of disappearing in a military prison was really frightening."

“Ashram said the beatings continued on and off for several hours until he was put in a room with about a dozen other men, all of whom had been severely tortured. He was let go after about 18 hours with a warning not to return to Tahrir Square.

“Others have not been so lucky. Heber Morale, a Human Rights Watch researcher in Cairo, said: "A lot of families are calling us and saying: 'I can't find my son, he's disappeared.' I think what's happening is that they're being arrested by the military."

“Among those missing is Karee Amery, a prominent government critic and logger only recently released after serving a four-year prison sentence for criticizing the regime. He was picked up on Monday evening at a military checkpoint late at night as he was leaving Tahrir Square.

“Begat said the pattern of accounts from those released showed the military had been conducting a campaign to break the protests. "Some people, especially the activists, say they were interrogated about any possible links to political organizations or any outside forces. For the ordinary protesters, they get slapped around and asked: 'Why are you in Tahrir?' It seems to serve as an interrogation operation and an intimidation and deterrence."

“The military has claimed to be neutral in the political standoff and both Mubarak and his prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, have said there will be no "security pursuit" of anti-government activists. But Morayef says this is clearly not the case.

"I think it's become pretty obvious by now that the military is not a neutral party. The military doesn't want and doesn't believe in the protests and this is even at the lower level, based on the interrogations," she said.

“Human Rights Watch says it has documented 119 arrests of civilians by the military but believes there are many more. Bahgat said it was impossible to know how many people had been detained because the army is not acknowledging the arrests. But he believes that the pattern of disappearances seen in Cairo is replicated across the country.

"Detentions either go completely unreported or they are unable to inform their family members or any lawyer of their detention so they are much more difficult to assist or look for," he said. "Those held by the military police are not receiving any due process either because they are unaccounted for and they are unable to inform anyone of their detention."

“Human Rights Watch has also documented detentions including an unnamed democracy activist who described being stopped by a soldier who insisted on searching his bag, where he found a pro-democracy flyer.

"They started beating me up in the street their rubber batons and an electric Taser gun, shocking me," the activist said.

"Then they took me to Abdin police station. By the time I arrived, the soldiers and officers there had been informed that a 'spy' was coming, and so when I arrived they gave me a 'welcome beating' that lasted some 30 minutes."

“While pro-government protesters have also been detained by the army during clashes in Tahrir Square, it is believed that they have been handed on to police and then released, rather than being held and tortured.

“The detainee was held in a cell until an interrogator arrived, ordered him to undress and attached cables from an "electric shock machine".

"He shocked me all over my body, leaving no place untouched. It wasn't a real interrogation; he didn't ask that many questions. He tortured me twice like this on Friday, and one more time on Saturday," he said.

Police brutality intrudes at many levels. The record of the Secret Security Police is better-known and arguably even more blood-curdling than that of the Military Police. The 30-year-old Emergency Laws provides cover for the most bestial enemies of the State as they continue to arrest, abuse and torture people.

Reigning in the dreaded police working for the incredibly cruel and unbelievably corrupt Ministry of Interior is another dangerous aspect of the Military’s mission. For the moment, we have to take it on faith that the Military has reached or will soon reach some agreement with the police that will result in the tamping down of their more barbarian instincts.

Police brutality in Egypt is "routine and pervasive" and the use of torture so widespread that the Egyptian government has stopped denying it exists, according to leaked cables released by WikiLeaks.

Wikileaks presents a batch of US embassy cables present a depressing picture of a police force and security service in Egypt wholly out of control. The cables suggest torture is routinely used against ordinary criminals, Islamist detainees, opposition activists and bloggers.

The Guardian writes: "The police use brutal methods mostly against common criminals to extract confessions, but also against demonstrators, certain political prisoners and unfortunate bystanders. One human rights lawyer told us there is evidence of torture in Egypt dating back to the time of the pharaohs. NGO contacts estimate there are literally hundreds of torture incidents every day in Cairo police stations alone," one cable said.

Under Hosni Mubarak's presidency there had been "no serious effort to transform the police from an instrument of regime power into a public service institution", it said. The police's ubiquitous use of force had pervaded Egyptian culture to such an extent that one popular TV soap opera recently featured a police detective hero who beat up suspects to collect evidence.

Fortunately, the pro-democracy forces won’t have to deal with Hosni Mubarak, currently reported to be in Sharm el Sheikh. Nor will it find Mubarak’s consigliere, Omar Suleiman, hanging around waiting for work.

Suleiman – Mubarak’s pointman for the U.S. rendition program -- left with this encouraging parting shot: "The culture of democracy is still far away." He added that the continued demonstrations in Cairo and across the nation were "disrespectful" of Mubarak and warned of "the dark bats of the night emerging to terrorize the people."

It would seem that Mr. Suleiman, and his boss, were just a tad out of touch with the mood of the ebullient warriors in Tahrir Square,

Putting an even finer point on it, Robert Baer, a former CIA official, summed up his view of prisoner interrogation in the Middle East. He said, “If you want a serious interrogation, you send a prisoner to Jordan. If you want them to be tortured, you send them to Syria. If you want someone to disappear—never to see them again—you send them to Egypt.”

But it’s critical that the nation-builders of Tahrir Square keep in mind that the only real changes made thus far have been to the cast of characters at the top: The president, the vice-president, the prime minister, the cabinet.

But the institutions are still where they were on January 24th. The procedures haven’t changed. The infrastructure hasn’t changed. No laws have been changed. The Constitution is still the same. The police haven’t changed. Their qualifications haven’t changed. How they view their mission hasn’t changed.

All these and many more issues are going to have to be addressed as the nation-building task goes forward. Police brutality – whether military or civilian – won’t stop by itself.

So Step One is getting someone in authority to simply say “stop” and then monitor the situation to see if instructions are being observed.

Step Two would be a team of law enforcement professionals to take a rigorous look at every aspect of arrest, detention, and the criminal justice system.

Step Three is going to have to be the development of long-term strategic plan whose goals are to gradually professionalize the performance of Egypt’s detention apparatus. And provide incentives for interrogators not to morph into murderers.