The Picture around Shaimaa

Photo: Reuters/Yom al-Sabaa

On January 29, five days after Shaimaa el-Sabbagh was killed as police dispersed a peaceful protest in downtown Cairo, a group of women gathered at the site of her death. They were there to protest the brutality and impunity of the Egyptian police. The protest was small, with no more than seventy women taking part.

The risk of violence, arrest, or both, was high. We were sure to carry our ID cards, in case of detention. Despite the warm day, many of us wore leggings underneath our jeans, extra layers of clothes underneath hoodies, belts and heavy boots as a precaution against sexual assault, commonly used by security forces to deter female protesters from taking to the streets.

Across the street, several high-ranking police officers stood in front of a few APCs and men wearing combat gear, rifles, and facemasks. When a journalist asked to speak, I moved so that I could keep my eye on them while we talked. According to witnesses, police gave no warning before they started shooting in the direction of the protest on the day Shaimaa was killed.

The protest ended with no arrests or violence, much to the relief of many there. Thousands of people have been detained since the regime came to power and began its crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood and all other critics. An often-cited independent estimate of those arrested from July 2013 to May 2014 is 41,000 . A repressive protest law passed in November 2013 now gives police legal cover to use excessive force to disperse protests, and allows disproportionately harsh prison sentences against demonstrators.  Among others, prominent secular activists including Ahmed Maher, Ahmed Douma, Yara Sallam, Alaa Abdel Fattah, and Sanaa Seif have been sentenced under the law. The interior ministry, however, claims only 2,703 have been arrested under the protest law, with only 301 remaining in custody.  

It was an almost foreign feeling to walk away from a protest, take off the many (now proven) unnecessary layers of clothes, and be left with one’s liberty for the rest of the day. Liberty from arrest by police, or from spending hours locating others who were detained, or from following them to the hospital, or worse yet, the morgue. This is not to suggest that the protest was some sort of victory. If nothing else, it was  a victory over fear  in the face of the stark images capturing the moment of Shaimaa’s death.

As images and videos of uniformed police shooting in the direction of Shaimaa made international headlines, the Ministry of Interior’s official reaction was to first claim police had not fired at the protest, and then to suggest that the Muslim Brotherhood, declared a terrorist organization by Egyptian authorities in 2014, was responsible for her death.

Several of Shaimaa’s colleagues in the Socialist Popular Alliance Party (SPAP) present at the march, including party deputy head Zohdy al Shamy, were detained at different times after her death. They were interrogated, accused of participating in an illegal protest, and of assaulting police officers. Fears grew that they would be accused of her killing, and lawyers, who were sometimes kicked out of the interrogation, said the questioning seemed to be heading in that direction. At present, they have all been released. The prosecutor’s office has not, however, detained or interrogated any members of the security forces present at the time of Shaimaa’s death.

But the regime seems to know this is a story which should be addressed with words if not with action. On Sunday, President Abdel Fattah al Sisi, a master of emotive oration, declared that Shaimaa was “like his daughter.” At a gathering of public personalities which included the Pope of Alexandria, the Mufti of al-Azhar, and several political party members at an armed forces event, Minister of Interior Mohamed Ibrahim publicly pledged to pursue Shaimaa’s killer, even if the person responsible turns out to be a policeman. “It is not a shame to admit it when we make a mistake,” Sisi said.  

That same day, reports emerged surrounding the death of a man while hospitalized in police custody in Giza. Mohamed Atia had been arrested on suspicion of attempting to plant a bomb at a police station; police shot at him during the course of the arrest, and he was taken to hospital with a head wound.  A statement released by the Ministry of Interior on Saturday said the suspect was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and that he had taunted the policeman guarding him in the hospital. The taunts included insults to the police force, state leaders, and the armed forces, as well as threats to hurt the policeman and his family. The low-ranking policeman then “lost control over his feelings” and shot the man dead. State newspapers on Monday morning reported that the policeman confessed to having been paid by the Muslim Brotherhood to kill the suspect in custody. Even when policemen confess to killing people in their custody, it seems, the blame is placed on someone else. The right to hold authorities accountable, even when their crimes are evident, continues to be sidelined in a national atmosphere obsessed with supporting the regime in its war against terror.

As we begin to move through the calendar anniversary of the eighteen-day uprising of 2011 and the months that followed, other cases of police brutality will continue to unfold and be remembered. Dark dates from within the many layers of a violent four-year history will be shared, while those responsible are not held accountable. Instead they are protected by public misinformation, scapegoating, and a justice system dedicated to serving those in power, and in uniform, above all else. 

Yasmin El-Rifae is a writer and researcher who lives between Cairo and New York. She also helps organize the Palestine Festival of Literature. She tweets at @yasminelrifae