14 March 2016

The descent of Egypt


In January this year an Italian graduate student from Cambridge University disappeared in Cairo. Giulio Regeni had been researching independent trade unions in Egypt; on the evening of January 25 he was on his way to meet an academic colleague from the British University in Cairo. According to the Associated Press news agency Regeni got as far as a security check in a metro station close to his apartment. He then disappeared.

Nine days later Regeni’s body was found outside Cairo on the road to Alexandria. Initially an Egyptian police spokesman said he had been killed in a car accident. A post-mortem showed that in fact he had been tortured to death, probably over the course of several days.

Disappearance, torture and death in custody are regular occurrences in Egypt. According to the Cairo-based Al-Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, over 600 people were tortured in detention in Egypt last year, and at least 137 died during their detention (these figures only include cases that appeared in the press). What is remarkable about Regeni’s death is that the graduate student was a foreigner, a European from a country with close and supportive ties to the military government of Egypt (it is the first time that a westerner is known to have fallen into the extensive detention-and-torture system run by Egypt’s security forces), and that the authorities in Egypt are doing little to conceal something that was certain to attract worldwide attention. Regeni’s body could have disappeared forever. Instead it was left to be found and send its message to the world.

The official Egyptian position is that there is no systematic torture in Egypt, and that Giulio Regeni was killed by unspecified rogue elements or possibly by criminals. Few in Egypt believe that, not least because the marks on Regeni’s body are very familiar to anyone who has dealt with previous cases of security service torture in Egyptian police stations and security service buildings. There are very extensive collections of individual testimonies and detailed recent case notes on death by torture available from the Al-Nadeem Center, from the International Coalition for Freedoms and Rights, and from Amnesty International, among others. Torture is very rarely a series of random assaults, but tends to follow patterns that are distinctive. Torturers learn from their fellow torturers, and repeat what they have been taught.

In Egypt there are several such characteristic patterns physical abuse. One is the use of electric shock torture. In all of the documented recent cases of torture in Egypt, the use of electric shock devices is remarkably prevalent. Another pattern is the habit of attacking the victim’s ears and genitals, and there is a strong theme of sexual degradation in many accounts of torture in Egypt. Less common but still frequent is the tearing out of fingernails, and burning with cigarettes. According to the Associated Press reporting on Regini’s first post mortem conducted in Egypt, his body bore marks of all of these forms of torture. His treatment bears a remarkable similarity to several cases featured in Amnesty International’s current report on Egypt, down to the precise extent and nature of the injuries suffered.

Most of these instances take place in police stations. Although beatings and systematic deprivations are common in Egyptian prisons, the police station is the setting for interrogation by torture. Many cases are perpetrated by Egyptian police officers, often as part of minor criminal investigations or even of petty personal feuds (according to Amnesty International one middle-aged civil servant was tortured to death in 2014 after arguing with neighbours who had ties to officers at Cairo’s el-Matareya police station – a location that figures frequently in accounts of institutional torture). Others are the work of plainclothes security men who are probably members of the National Security Agency (known locally as Egyptian Homeland Security), the successor to former president Hosni Mubarak’s State Security force.

The background to these cases is the fact that Egypt is facing a rapidly rising rate of terrorist attacks on its army and security forces, and occasionally on foreigners. The government of president Field Marshal Abdul Fatah al-Sisi seized power from the elected Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohammed Morsi in 2013, promising to return Egypt to stability. In fact the opposite has happened. While attacks like the bombing of an airliner full of Russian tourists in October last year by a group claiming to be a branch of Islamic State have made the headlines, there are now hundreds of lesser engagements which do not make the news. The attacks began immediately after the military coup of 2013, and continued at a rate of around five to ten a month until February of 2015 when they suddenly increased to around 50 a month, rising in July last year to almost 90 attacks.

There are numerous groupings opposed to the Egyptian government that have claimed responsibility for these attacks that include shootings and bombings with improvised explosives. The most prolific terrorist group is the Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, originally an affiliate of Al-Qaeda with close ties to Osama bin-Laden’s Egyptian right-hand man Ayman al-Zawahiri, but more recently modelled on Islamic State with ambitions to recreate the ‘Caliphate’ in North Sinai. Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, or Wilayat Sinai as it now calls itself, has been responsible for the majority of attacks against security forces in the last year, although another group called the Allied Popular Resistance Movement has also been responsible for attacks in other parts of Egypt, including the Fayyoum oasis, while Islamic State Egypt has claimed attacks in Cairo.

In the face of this onslaught one explanation for the rise in detentions, disappearances and deaths in custody is that the Egyptian government has permitted the security services to run out of control. Arbitrary detention and torture are not new in Egypt – indeed, they continued under the Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohammed Morsi, before the rise in terrorist attacks – but there is now an element of randomness to the disappearances. For someone to be taken away and subjected to torture it is enough to be merely near a demonstration, or simply to ask a police officer what is happening – both instances have recently been reported by human rights organizations in Egypt.

The idea that things have got out of hand would be consistent with the appointment early this month as interior minister of Magdy Abdel Ghaffar, a stalwart of former president Hosni Mubarak’s State Security service; some see this appointment as an attempt by the military government to regain control of policing and to put its anti-terrorism strategy back on track. It would also fit with the idea that Giulio Regeni was another chance victim of a system running out of control.

Whether the Egyptian government really does want to roll back the culture of violence and impunity it has fostered is another matter. The al-Sisi government has spent the last two and a half years demonstrating that it will not tolerate debate, or challenge, or dissent of any kind, detaining and imprisoning journalists, photographers, authors, members of the Muslim Brotherhood, and anyone accused of “unauthorized protesting”. The extent of impunity is suggested by the fact that the chief police investigator of the killing of Giulio Regeni was himself convicted of torturing a suspect to death in 2003: he received a suspended sentence.

Egypt’s security challenge is growing but it is not yet disabling; the majority of terrorist attacks remain confined to the remote northeastern desert. One indicator of the relative normality that prevails is that it is still possible to buy travel insurance to Egypt at standard rates (even though for many destinations you will now struggle to find a flight that is not run by Egyptair, most low-cost carriers having abandoned flights to Egyptian resorts). If the past is any guide, Egypt’s security forces will eventually be able to suppress the terrorist upsurge and restore the security that is necessary to rebuild Egypt’s vital tourist trade and give comfort to investors, just as the previous military government of Hosni Mubarak suppressed the Islamist terrorism of Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya in the late 1990s.

The cost of that suppression was enormous. Mubarak’s repressions embittered and divided Egyptian society, and pushed Egyptian Islamists into the arms of al-Qaeda (significantly, the brains behind 9/11 were all Egyptian). The present day backers of President al-Sisi – who include the US, the UK (David Cameron enthusiastically welcomed al-Sisi to Downing Street late last year) and Italy, which like the UK has large scale gas energy interests in Egypt – are all making the same gamble they made with Mubarak, and Assad, and Hussein, that a ruthless strongman who doesn’t threaten you directly is always the best bet in the Arab world.

Four days after Regeni was found the UK’s trade envoy to Egypt Jeffrey Donaldson visited Cairo, calling Egypt “a land of real opportunity for British companies”. He did not mention the Cambridge graduate student whose body – minus fingernails – had just been recovered from a ditch on the Alexandria road.

Richard Walker is a journalist and communications adviser to financial companies.