Khaled Said: The face that launched a revolution

Ahram Online, Wednesday 6 Jun 2012

Despite attempts by the former regime to stain his reputation, Khaled Saeed, who was murdered by police in Alexandria in June 2010, has become a symbol of the Mubarak regime's brutality

Khaled Said
File photo: an activist carries a picture of slain Khaled Said with Arabic that reads "Why was Khaled killed?" during a protest following a press conference for the family at the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate in Cairo, Egypt. (Photo: AP)

The face was unrecognisable, almost grotesque. The jaw was dislocated, little gaps remained where once his teeth used to be, the nose was broken and the eyes stared vacantly ahead.

The expression was one of horror, frozen forever.

When the photo was published online in June 2010, few people knew to who it belonged. Slowly the details emerged and it became known that he was Khaled Mohamed Said, a 28-year-old young entrepreneur from Alexandria.

Khaled was beaten to death by two officers because he possessed video footage of policemen sharing the spoils of a drug bust. However, unlike the thousands of cases of torture during the Mubarak regime, this one was not going to be forgotten. In fact, the death of Khaled Said played a major role in sparking the revolution that toppled a brutal regime.

The story of a victim of police brutality

Khaled’s father died when he was young, leaving his mother Laila to raise him and his siblings Zahara and Ahmed. Khaled became a handsome young man with a keen interest in music and computers. Friends and neighbours interviewed after his death spoke of a quiet person, who left his apartment only when the internet connection was cut. It was for this reason that he ventured to the cybercafé in Cleopatra on 6 June.

Khaled was sitting in the café, when two plainclothes officers entered and headed his way. What happened next is not entirely clear but initial accounts said the officers asked Khaled for money and when he refused they beat him, ultimately causing his death.

Later accounts, however, revealed that the two officers tried to arrest Khaled and when he asked them to show him an arrest warrant, they began viciously beating him.

The owner of the café testified that the officers began beating Khaled as they dragged him out of the building. At one point they slammed his body into the café’s marble wall before the owner told them to take it outside. The two officers then dragged him to a doorway across the street and continued to beat him in full view of pedestrians, including children.

"They dragged him to the adjacent building and banged his head against an iron door, the steps of the staircase and walls of the building...Two doctors happened to be there and tried to revive him but (the police) continued beating him...They continued to beat him even when he was dead,” the café owner told the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights.

The beating continued for about 20 minutes, and stunned onlookers reported hearing Khaled crying "I’m going to die." One eyewitness said that he tried to intervene but was pushed back by the officers and told to mind his own business.

Khaled did not survive the beating. Eyewitnesses said the two officers then carried his lifeless body to a police car but returned five minutes later and dumped his corpse in front of the building where he had been beaten. A few minutes later an ambulance appeared and took him away.

The next time his family saw him was in the morgue. Khaled’s 41-year-old brother, Ahmed, was distraught.

"They took him in a police truck and didn’t allow me to join. They took me to a police officer who kept me there for four hours and then they took me to the morgue to see his body. Apparently they'd spent all this time trying to fix the injuries and bruises, but there was too much damage to disguise it. Already his head was open, his body was bruised all over, and his neck was broken. I took photos of him," said Ahmed.

When the details were released on the internet it went viral and helped trigger the Egypt's January 25 Revolution.

For weeks after his death, protests erupted across the country demanding justice for Khaled. In a statement issued on 24 June, a day before the Alexandria protest, Human Rights Watch said, "photographs of Said's mangled face, as well as eyewitness accounts, constitute strong evidence that plainclothes security officers beat him in a public and vicious manner."

Police brutality and torture were a signature of Mubarak’s police state. Thousands of Egyptians, mostly from the lower classes, were dragged into police stations, which became the site of daily torment and anguish. However, there was something different about Khaled. He was not poor, but came from a middle class family. The widely circulated photo of Khaled before his death, showed a half-smiling young man, dressed in a neat grey sweater. He looked like any other Egyptian man and for that reason millions of Egyptians identified with him.

A few days after his death, Google executive Wael Ghonim launched the 'We Are All Khaled Said' Facebook page. The social media website attracted hundreds of thousands of members and became one of the most popular places of dissent for Egyptians on the internet.

"Looking at Khaled's photo after his death, basically, I just felt that we are all Khaled Said. That was a feeling," Ghonim told Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "It wasn't just a brand name. It was a feeling. We were all of these young Egyptians who could die, and no one [would be] held accountable. So at the time, I thought, 'I have to do something'. I believed that bringing Khaled's case to a public case would be helpful."

Khaled’s tragic demise not only captured the imagination of Egyptians, but of people worldwide. His battered face became synonymous with police brutality, oppression, injustice but also of resistance, courage and, finally, a revolution.

As excited Egyptians watched the Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution unfold, Ghonim decided to use the page to begin a similar movement in Egypt. The Tunisians had Mohamed Bouazizi, the street vendor who set himself on fire and Egypt had Khaled Said.

Ghonim chose 25 January, Police Day, to launch a protest against police brutality. The mass protests that began that day resulted in the 18-day uprising which eventually topped Mubarak.

No Justice for Khaled

The suffering of Khaled’s family did not end with his death, for the long road to justice proved arduous.

After his death, his mother had to deal not only with the loss of her son but also with accusations that he was a drug addict. Initially the Egyptian police would not investigate his death and the Ministry of Interior insisted that he had a package of marijuana with him at the time of his arrest and had swallowed it to avoid detection by the officers.

When pressure mounted, the Mubarak regime began a smear campaign against Khaled, accused him of being an army deserter, a drug user and wanted on two charges. When representatives from the European Union demanded an investigation into his death, the Egyptian authorities finally made moves to question and arrest the two policemen involved.

Warrant Officer Mahmoud Salah and Sergeant Awad Ismail Suleiman were accused of excessive force and illegal arrest. If convicted, they faced between three and 20 years imprisonment. Lawyers for Said's family asked for the charges to be upped to murder.

"Why did undercover policemen go to arrest Khaled?" said a statement issued by the Al-Nadeem Centre for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and Torture. "Did they have an arrest warrant? If the Ministry of Interior's statement claiming that Khaled was wanted on two counts is true, why didn't the police go to his house and arrest him? They needed only to turn up in uniform with an arrest warrant."

In an initial statement, the Ministry of Interior said the Khaled's apparent injuries were due to the autopsy in which forensic doctors cut away his jaw to remove the bag of marijuana.

The trial of the two officers began in July 2010. Witnesses, including Said’s family, were threatened, blackmailed and even kidnapped during the months of the trial. Finally, in October 2011, the court sentenced the duo to a meagre seven years in jail.

The Legend of Khaled

There is no doubt that Khaled has become a legend and icon of the Egyptian Revolution. His face has been immortalised on stencils and graffiti all over Egypt. He was posthumously awarded a human rights award in 2011 in Berlin and was honoured by US President Barack Obama. He became a muse for many artists, including the famous Brazilian cartoonist Carlos Latuff whose cartoons of a giant sized Khaled dangling a tiny Mubarak from his hand became one of the most recognised images of Egypt's revolution.

The 'We Are All Khaled Said' Facebook page continues to be one of the most popular sites of opposition to the former regime and a catalyst for change.

Khaled’s mother Laila has also become a well-known figure and a de facto political activist. She became a symbol of justice, not only for her son, but also for the hundreds who died during the uprising and the thousands of faceless and nameless victims who suffered from police brutality during the Mubarak regime.

Now, two years after his death, revolutionaries agree that the day Khaled Said died, the twenty minutes it took to beat the life out of his body, changed Egypt forever.

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