Egypt's revolution: Quest for human dignity remains ongoing

Sherif Tarek , Thursday 24 Jan 2013

Longstanding revolutionary demands for 'human dignity' remain unfulfilled amid continued reports of police abuse and a sorely deficient public healthcare system

Tahrir square
Egyptian army soldiers arrest a woman protester during clashes with military police near Cairo's downtown Tahrir Square (Photo: AP)

During Tunisia's revolution in late 2010, 'Bread, freedom and human dignity!' became a trademark chant. And as Egyptians revolutionaries followed suit, hitting the streets to topple another autocratic regime, they shouted the same slogan in the early days of Egypt's 25 January 2011 Tahrir Square uprising.

The Egyptian version was soon altered, however, with 'human dignity' being replaced with 'social justice,' in reference to the many inequities fostered by the unregulated capitalism and pervasive corruption that had characterised the Mubarak era.

No doubt, human dignity – or the lack thereof – acted as a catalyst for the Egyptian Revolution as much as it did in the case of Tunisia. Yet two years on, for Egypt at least, the quest for human dignity appears far from over.

Police abuses

In the lead-up to both revolutions, persistent police abuse of the citizenry represented one of the more blatant violations of human dignity.

In Tunisia, Mohamed Bouazizi's act of self-immolation – which inflamed the feelings of hundreds of thousands of Tunisians – came after police had confiscated his goods, publicly abused him and refused to file his subsequent complaint.

Much as this incident prompted the Tunisian revolt, which marked the demise of Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali's rule and the advent of the so-called 'Arab Spring,' the death in June 2010 of a young Alexandrian man – Khaled Said – set the stage for Egypt's looming revolution.

Only 27 years old, Said was beaten to death by two policemen in Egypt's second city. His death, which later made him a revolutionary icon, had reportedly been payback for his possession of footage showing corrupt policemen divvying up the spoils of a drug bust.

Some six months later, Egyptian revolutionaries picked 25 January – coinciding with Mubarak's 'National Police Day' – to stage their uprising to protest widespread police abuses, several examples of which were caught on video and posted online.

For some time after the revolution – which saw security forces open fire on unarmed protesters, who in turn set several police stations ablaze – such abuses appeared to have subsided. What's more, police violations were soon overshadowed by reported abuses by army personnel under Egypt's then-ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. These included hauling civilians before military tribunals and the alleged torture of civilian detainees at military facilities.

Yet now, with President Mohamed Morsi in the presidential palace and the uprising's second anniversary around the corner, police brutality appears to be once again rearing its ugly head, according to several reports.

A study released in mid-October by the Cairo-based Nadim Centre for the Rehabilitation of Torture Victims revealed that 34 cases of death, 88 cases of torture and seven cases of sexual assault were reported at the hands of Egyptian police during Morsi's first 100 days in office.

Several additional cases of fatal police abuse have since been reported, the latest of which was the case of an Imbaba clothes merchant allegedly tortured to death in the Waraq Police Station only days ahead of the uprising's second anniversary.

According to security experts, Morsi, elected last June, has yet to institute positive changes to the way police operate – despite repeated promises to revamp Egypt's entire security apparatus.

"The police consider everyone a suspect until they are proven otherwise. They have arrest quotas and this is their target, not maintaining security," Mahmoud Kotri, a former brigadier general and security expert, told Ahram Online in October. "This is one of the reasons why torture and abuse continue to occur."

Police as victim                           

While Egypt's interior ministry and its personnel have been frequently blamed for violations of human dignity, the police themselves also occasionally endure inhumane circumstances.

Ten days ahead of the revolution's second anniversary, a train crash in Giza shed light on the suffering of army conscripts seconded to the interior ministry's Central Security Forces (CSF), who are often tasked with carrying out unenviable police actions – including the forcible dispersal of popular demonstrations.

Apart from the fact that they were transported in a train apparently operating beyond its life expectancy, the conscripts reportedly suffered in other ways as well.

Speaking to Ahram Online, two of the conscripts injured in the Giza crash said the trip had already been far from pleasant, with their police superiors repeatedly insulting and beating them with sticks. Similar testimony was repeated by other passengers on the doomed train.

"I was happy to join the army. I expected that we would take comfortable buses – not be crammed five in one seat in an ancient train in which passengers ride in spaces reserved for baggage, while our superiors insult us," conscript Ibrahim Mohamed said, describing conditions on the train.

The 12-carriage train, which had been transporting some 1,300 young CSF conscripts, was travelling to Cairo from Upper Egypt when it was derailed in the Giza suburb of Badrashin. Nineteen were killed and scores injured after two railway cars – each carrying over 200 soldiers – slammed into a cargo train sitting outside a storage depot.

The Hawamdiya Hospital, to which several injured conscripts were taken, meanwhile, proved woefully under-equipped for the disaster.

"There was no cotton, no alcohol or bandages; there was a lack of the most basic supplies," morgue official Mohammed El-Sayed told Ahram Online one day after the accident. "I saw injured people who might have been saved if we had had the right equipment."

Deteriorating public healthcare

Inadequate equipment, accommodation and staff at Egypt's public hospitals – not to mention sub-par medical treatment – represent another all-too-common breach of human dignity.

According to Mohamed Debes, former general manager of Um El-Masreyeen Hospital and the Suzanne Mubarak Specialised Hospital for Children, this has been the case in Egypt for decades. Nor has the situation, says Debes, improved during Morsi's more than six months in office.

"Just go visit any Egyptian public hospital or medical centre and you will understand," he told Ahram Online. "The staff will treat you in the worst possible way, while all the facilities teem with patients, adding to the disorganisation and chaos."

And in terms of equipment, Debes added, "You can find four doctors sharing a single headset, or a big public hospital that doesn't even have a functioning blood pressure gauge. Surely, such deficiencies anger the public."

A junior doctor at Cairo's Qasr Al-Aini Hospital, Egypt's largest government hospital, told horrifying stories in this regard. "Major operations are often conducted without the use of any general anaesthetic, because the hospital simply doesn't have any," he told Ahram Online on condition of anonymity.

"In some cases, doctors will falsely tell patients that they have received anaesthesia, when in fact they have only been given a salt water injection," he added. "Tricking the patient this way physiologically helps him endure the pain – to a degree."

In October, Egyptian doctors, supported by the Egyptian Doctors' Syndicate, declared a partial strike to demand increases in public healthcare spending. The strike has been temporarily suspended until March, however, when elections for the syndicate's general assembly will be held.

Public healthcare spending in 2012/13 stands at some LE27.4 billion (roughly $4.5 billion), accounting for only 5 per cent of the total state budget. Total funds allocated to healthcare, however, have increased by 18 per cent since last year.

"Egypt simply doesn't have enough money at its disposal to bring healthcare at public medical facilities up to the standards of that seen in private ones," Debes said.

With all this in mind, cries for 'human dignity' will likely be heard in Egypt for the foreseeable future – suggesting that the country's post-revolution rulers will have their work cut out.

Thanks to chronic shortages in certain areas (witnessed even before the revolution), long queues are also now being reported for such staple commodities as subsidized bread and butane gas.

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