Egypt’s activists turn tables on tormentors
By Michael Birnbaum,
CAIRO — For years, President Hosni Mubarak’s feared security forces compiled secret files on anyone they deemed a threat to the regime.
Now, with Mubarak gone, activists are assembling dossiers on their old alleged tormenters — and they’re doing it in the harsh light of the Internet.
Names are linked to allegations and photos, which are posted online. Anyone who has something to add can post a comment, much like users do on Wikipedia. What had been a dark world of prisons and abuse is slowly surfacing, even though state security made a practice of blindfolding prisoners while in custody so that they couldn’t see what was happening.
“The tables are turned,” said Hossam al-Hamalawy, 33, an activist and freelance journalist who is the main force behind the online work. “We will be doing investigations on you; we will be profiling you,” he said of the activists’ former nemeses.
The activists got a lucky break in March when they unearthed a trove of photographs inside state security headquarters that amount to a secret policemen’s yearbook: records of officers at work and play. In some, security officials smile arm in arm at weddings and parties. In others, they glower at the camera while at work.
The photos are being posted online, one by one, alongside allegations about what the officers did during the Mubarak years. The charges include cutting off Internet service across the country during the protests earlier this year, tapping phones, beating and electrocuting people while they were in prison.
And some people are shifting uncomfortably in their seats. Hamalawy said that when he first posted the photos on Flickr, the popular photo-sharing service, someone immediately alerted the company, and the pictures were deleted within 48 hours. Flickr e-mailed him saying he could post only photos that he had taken.
“I stayed in absolute living terror for two days after those pictures were taken down,” Hamalawy said. “I was worried that something would happen to me before we got them up again.” Ultimately he was fine, he said, and he hasn’t received blowback from other sources.
Neither Flickr nor Yahoo, its parent company, responded to requests for comment.
Some prominent Egyptian figures said they worried that the project could put innocent people at risk.
The State Security Investigations agency “deserves a lot of criticism,” said Nabil Fahmy, a former envoy to the United States who is now dean of the School of Public Affairs at the American University in Cairo and an ambassador at large in the Foreign Ministry. But it’s tricky when anyone can post allegations, he said. “You don’t want to be repeating something that’s untrue.”
The Egyptian Interior Ministry did not respond to requests for comment about Hamalawy’s project. Hamalawy said he was not aware of anyone who had been physically harmed as a result of being featured on the Web site. He drew comparisons to “Wanted” posters in the Old West. And he said that after some officers had been featured in an earlier iteration of the site, they had dropped out of sight.
The state security agency was officially dissolved in March and replaced by a national security organization, according to Interior Minister Mansour el-Essawy. Activists say many of the people they hold responsible for the abuses of the past are still on the job.
Even before the revolution earlier this year that ended Mubarak’s nearly 30-year rule, Hamalawy and others were working on compiling information about the state security officers who would monitor protests, sometimes undercover, and arrest activists. These activists made a habit of photographing security forces at each protest and posting the pictures online, regardless of whether they knew the names. Sometimes they would get lucky — they would find a name, or someone would post it as a comment on an entry.
“It’s useful if you are trying to figure out who tortured you or who beat you up,” said Noha Atef, 26, a human rights activist and blogger who has worked with Hamalawy on the project.
The pace of the activists’ work has sped up since March, when protesters stormed the state security headquarters just outside Cairo and found files as well as DVDs containing profile photos of State Security Investigations officers. Hamalawy is looking for other researchers to expand his efforts.
None of the officials he has featured who got jobs in the new regime has been pushed out, and a feeling of insecurity on the streets has led many people to call for keeping the much-hated emergency law, which lent the old state security agency much of its power, at least for now.
Meanwhile, Hamalawy, a rail-thin journalist who has worked at the Los Angeles Times’s Cairo bureau and at several Egyptian publications, mostly recently at Al-Ahram Online, the English-language Internet version of the state-owned daily newspaper, is continuing his efforts to compile dossiers on the people whose pictures he posts online.
“Our strongest weapon before the revolution was always naming and shaming. We didn’t have any other way,” he said. “You blindfold us so as not to let us know your face, but we’ll let people know you cannot go to these torture chambers and then back home to your normal life. Your wife should know you’re a torturer, your parents should know, your friends should know.”
The climate, however, is still not totally safe for bloggers and activists. Criticizing the interim military rulers can still land people in jail, as blogger Maikel Nabil Sanad discovered last month when he was convicted of insulting the military and disturbing public security and sentenced to three years in prison.
“The revolution is definitely not over,” Hamalawy said. “They want to get away with as much as they can.”