It's More Than Mubarak: The Legacy of Torture in Egypt

On Saturday, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak appointed Omar Suleiman as his vice president; a striking move, considering that Mubarak has gone his entire 30-year reign without a vice president, deflecting questions about succession. While the protesters on the street are certainly calling for Mubarak’s ouster, their primary chant — Al-Sha3b! Yureed! Isqat al-Nizam! (The people want the fall of the regime) — highlights that this uprising is about much more than Mubarak. Any ‘peaceful’ transition that involves Suleiman or other regime cronies' assuming control will surely be rejected by the protesters.

As a police state, Egypt has relied upon brutality and torture, and the widespread knowledge that the police and security apparatus employed such tactics with impunity, to intimidate its population into silence. Until this past week, it was the rare brave activist who blogged or demonstrated given the threat of beatings, rape, sodomization, and even murder. Among people I knew in Egypt, it was an expectation that someone taken into police or security custody would be tortured, or at least beaten.

Given that the police did not need a reason to arrest someone under the country’s Emergency Law — in place since 1981 and renewed most recently in 2008, justified as a necessary weapon against terrorism — the threat of such harsh treatment hung heavy over everyday life. Recently released Wikileaks cables mention that people were loathe to report petty crime because they knew that perpetrators or even suspects, such as their doormen, would face harsh treatment disproportionate to the infraction at the hands of the police.

In 2007, a video showing police officers sodomizing a prisoner with a stick was released; while the highly public nature of the incident was a scandal, nobody was particularly surprised. Human Rights Watch has rightly cited the legacy of police brutality in Egypt as a driving force behind the current uprising, and has documented the numerous human rights violations of the Mubarak regime.

It is in this context that the appointment of Omar Suleiman as vice president must be seen. Suleiman is the head of Egypt’s intelligence service. As such, he has overseen the torture not only of Egyptian citizens, but of terror suspects from all over the world brought to Egypt under the CIA’s rendition program. Indeed, Suleiman was considered Egypt’s “torturer-in-chief” for terror suspects. He is known to harbor deep anti-Islamist sentiment, which made him a good partner in the U.S. "War on Terror."

Beyond his immediate association with the very practices of brutality and intimidation against which Egyptians are protesting, Suleiman would not be where he is were he not extremely close with Mubarak and deeply embedded in the existing regime, underpinned by the military. The demonstrators are not stupid; they know who Suleiman is and why he was appointed. Yes, they call for Mubarak to step down. But more than that, they are seeking an end to the systematic oppression and culture of fear that Mubarak — along with men like Suleiman — have built and kept intact so long.

Photo Credit: Sarah Carr

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Carolyn Barnett

Carolyn Barnett is studying for an MA in Islamic Studies and MSc in Middle East Politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. She graduated from Georgetown University in 2009 and studied at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad in Cairo, Egypt in 2009-2010. Her interests are in Middle East politics, Islam, gender, and the causes and consequences of the Arab uprisings.

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