NEW YORK – The killing under torture in a maximum security prison in Cairo of Essam Ali Atta Ali, a 24-year-old Egyptian, raises concern on the role of the Egyptian military in the “New Egypt.” His death was likened to that of Khalid Said, who was beaten to death by the police in Alexandria last year.
What Atta’s death shows is that the same abuses that were perpetrated under former President Hosni Mubarak continue, and that true democracy and respect for people’s rights are a long way off in Egypt.
Atta was arrested last February, convicted of “thuggery.” He was sentenced to two years in prison. According to the Interior Ministry, he was also carrying an unlicensed weapon. He is one of 12,000 cases who, according to human rights activists in the country, have been tried by military, instead of civilian, courts. In contrast, Mubarak and his cronies are being tried in civilian courts and their trials are expected to last for months or even years.
“The military justice system should never be used to investigate or prosecute civilians. Military courts are fundamentally unfair, as they deprive defendants of basic fair trial guarantees,” states Amnesty International. One may recall George Clemenceau’s statement that “Military justice is to justice as military music is to music.”
What makes his case special, however, is that it proves that torture and assassination continue to be practiced in Egyptian jails. Atta was sodomized to death by prison guards who used hoses to inject water into his mouth and anus which produced profuse bleeding leading to his death. A statement from the military government attributed Atta’s death to “unknown poisoning” and said that prison guards tried to save him.
According to his father, however, after being tortured for more than an hour other prisoners pleaded with the prison guards to stop torturing him. When the guards stopped, he was transferred to Kasr El-Aini hospital where he died an hour later. After seeing Atta’s bloodied body for a short time at the morgue, where she was verbally abused by the guards, Aida Seif al-Dawla, an official at the El-Nadim Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, called Atta “the second Khalid Said”.
When the military adopted a calming behavior during the revolt in Tahrir Square many thought, or hoped, that this event signaled a change in the military’s policy towards its former associates. They also thought that the military was going to open the way for the creation of authentic democracy in Egypt. History shows, however, that once the military assume direct power, they only relinquish it by force or after a serious national crisis, as has been proved in Argentina, Chile and in many other countries worldwide.
The continued practice of torture in Egyptian jails is only one of many Tahrir activists’ complaints against the ruling military junta. Activists are concerned that the military would like to perpetuate their rule, either holding power for as long as possible or by opening the way for one of their own to become president.
Recently, several hundred posters appeared in Cairo and Alexandria, calling on Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to run for president, feeding people’s fears that the military may want to indefinitely remain in power.
Two members of the military council recently stated that the military plans to retain full control of government after the election of Parliament begins in late November and until a new president is elected, a process that could well extend into 2013 or even longer.
In the meantime, and following the attack on the Israeli Embassy in Cairo, the SCAF not only kept the state of emergency but has broadened the law’s mandate, including now “aggression against freedom to work, sabotaging factories and holding up transport, blocking roads and deliberately publishing false news, statements or rumors.” The law gives security forces wide powers of search, arrest and detention and shows the big divide between people’s demands and actions by the military, which in 2010 had promised that it would use the law only to combat terrorism and drug trafficking.
The evidence of systematic torture, expanding the reach of the emergency law and the military’s heavy hand in quelling civilian protests such as the one on October 9 in which 27 people — mostly Christians — were killed raises serious doubts about the military allowing peaceful dissent and allowing democracy in the country. Slowly, and surely, the Egyptian military is lifting its democratic mask.
Cesar Chelala is a co-winner of the Overseas Press Club of America award.