The war on civil society in Egypt

The war on civil society in Egypt
Comment: The closure of the Nadeem Centre is a blow for human rights activists, representing yet another attempt to erase the last lines of civil defence, warns Mohamed ElMashad.
5 min read
25 Feb, 2016
The close of an anti-torture centre is the latest episode in Egypt's regime repression [AFP]

Police officers have raided and shuttered The Nadeem Centre for Rehabilitation of Torture Victims (AlNadeem) after a decision originating from the Ministry of Health, that the medical clinics within the centre did not meet certain statutory standards.

But it is becoming more and more clear that the managers of the centre are correct in claiming that the closure was a political decision.

For decades, the centre has documented police brutality, a phenomenon that has seen a dramatic increase in the past few years and months. The past year has seen a wide-ranging crackdown on many human rights advocates and organisations, especially those closely linked to the 25 January revolution.

The closure of AlNadeem and the targeting of certain activists represent the forced removal of what has for years been the last line of civil defence against state transgressions.

In December 2010, three months into my career as a journalist in Egypt, I decided to begin what was a very daunting task of dedicating a portion of my time to reporting on human rights and social welfare issues.

Until then, having come from a different professional background, it felt like human rights transgressions - especially by government agencies - were rampant, yet attempting to uncover details was a fool's errand. Of course like most people, I always knew of the great human rights advocates, but uninformed as I was, I thought they worked alone, or at least in an unorganised manner.

That was the year that Khaled Said was beaten to death by security forces.

Said's case may not have been unique, tragic as it was, but for many reasons, his case brought the issue to the forefront of public consciousness. The juxtaposition of his fresh-faced photo next that of his brutalised body was one of the most galvanising images of the Egyptian revolution the following year. Police brutality was finally being spoken of seriously.

When I was assigned to write a rundown on cases of police torture in 2010 as a year-ender, I thought I would be spending my next few days scavenging newspapers, blogs and talking to lawyers in an attempt to conjure an informative piece on the topic.

Three hours into my research, a more experienced colleague asked me, "have you spoken to Nadeem yet?" Not knowing who or what Nadeem was; and not wanting to seem ill-informed, I said, "no, but I'll call him later today." My colleague gave me a confused look and walked away.

I did what any self-respecting millennial would do. I googled: Nadeem+torture.

From the perspective of an Egyptian journalist, access to information of this nature is invaluable

The first result was AlNadeem's website, and it astonished me. Not only was it an Egyptian NGO focusing on my topic, but they had physical headquarters, a full-time, dedicated, and diverse staff primarily of lawyers, psychiatrists and physicians. On top of that, they maintained detailed records of the cases that come by them and it is available for all to see.

From the perspective of an Egyptian journalist, access to information of this nature is invaluable, given the general secrecy bestowed upon such topics by the authorities.

The group of people who maintain AlNadeem understand how vital their role is and has been in Egyptian society

When I spoke to the organisation's director Aida Saif al-Dawla, she asked me to wait for the release of their full report on torture in 2010, which would be on police day, 25 January 2011.

She then let me in on the fact that there would be large protests against police brutality on the day. It was the first I had heard of plans for the 18 days of demonstrations that would change the course of Egypt's history.

Fast-forward to 2016, and it did not surprise me one bit to learn that Saif al-Dawla insisted that they would defy the closure and continue operating. The group of people who maintain AlNadeem understand how vital their role is and has been in Egyptian society.

AlNadeem was founded in 1993 against a political backdrop in which Egypt had just received loans from the World Bank and IMF, while vowing to enact both economic and political liberalisation. As a result, the government had been forced to expand the role of civil society organisations.

According to many accounts, torture in police stations at the time was at its peak, as it coincided with the rise of local "terrorist threats", as well as a resurgence of certain opposition political groups, at a time when Hosni Mubarak regime's popularity was massively deteriorating. By default, the majority of their victims were Islamists.

Despite being associated with leftist politics, AlNadeem operated on a platform that defied ideologies and politics, placing a value only on the sovereign notion that everyone must be afforded basic human rights.

At the moment, the dominant rhetoric from some apologists of police brutality is that it is not as problematic if violations are against opponents to the regime.

The most evident example of this was the belittlement of the massacre in Rabaa Square on 14 August 2013, when police slaughtered between 600 and 1,000 Muslim Brotherhood supporters and demonstrators in the street.

Similarly, the Ministry of Interior had justified the secret detention and forced disappearance of some activists, by later claiming that they were detained on terrorism related charges.

Recently, police have come under criticism for much more blatant transgressions. Suzanne Fayyad, one of the formidable forces behind AlNadeem, said that the prime minister's office was directly responsible for the closure and that the Ministry of Health informed her that they were not behind the decision.

If she is correct, then the only explanation is that the regime cannot be bothered the nuisance of being called out on violations - or the need to ensure rights for its citizens whatsoever.

Instead, this regime would simply like to shut down all calls for the accountability of its security forces.

Mohamed ElMeshad is a journalist and a PhD candidate at SOAS, focusing on the political economy of the media. He has worked extensively in Egypt, Bahrain, West Africa, the UK and US. Recently, he contributed to the Committee to Protect Journalists' book, Attacks on the Press (2015).

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.