Youth's death shocks Egypt, sparks protests

By Heba Saleh
Tuesday, July 20, 2010; 4:29 PM

CAIRO -- The death of a young man at the hands of police in Alexandria last month has given fresh momentum to calls for political change in Egypt, where the security services maintain an iron grip and protest movements find it hard to mobilize a fearful public.

Pictures of Khaled Said's bloodied face, widespread on the Internet and in the press, have outraged Egyptians and contributed to a sense of political malaise. Egypt appears to be drifting toward an uncharted transfer of power after 82-year-old President Hosni Mubarak, who spent more than three weeks in a German hospital this year, steps down or dies.

"The killing of Khaled Said marks a milestone allowing us to bring new generations into the national movement," said Ahmed Maher, a youth activist and coordinator of the 6th April Movement, an opposition group that will hold the latest in a series of protests against police impunity Friday.

Demonstrations around the country have expressed public anger at the killing of Said, 28. The strength of feeling has been deepened by the Interior Ministry's attempt to portray him as a petty criminal and drug addict.

A protest in Alexandria last month was attended by 4,000 people -- a high number in Egypt, where many people are afraid to join demonstrations. The marchers included families with children, going beyond the core of opposition activists who normally turn out for such events.

Said died after two plainclothes police officers dragged him out of an Internet cafe and beat him, banging his head against a staircase. The Interior Ministry denied that he had been assaulted, saying Said choked on drugs he swallowed when detectives approached.

Public outrage forced the authorities to carry out a new autopsy, which confirmed the police version of events. But with eyewitnesses coming forward, prosecutors charged the two detectives with unlawful detention and using unnecessary force.

"This has become an emblematic case," said Hossam Bahgat, who heads the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. "It is a breakthrough in the fight against torture. The fact that he was not a political activist or a criminal, but someone who belongs to the demographic majority of young people has made many youths identify with him."

Egypt is scheduled to hold parliamentary elections in October and a presidential election next year. If Mubarak does not seek another term, there is no obvious successor beyond his son, Gamal, who is a top official in the ruling National Democratic party.

The two men deny any plans for the younger Mubarak to step into his father's shoes, but analysts and the opposition say it is the most likely scenario.

The authoritarian system has prevented the emergence of any serious challengers for the presidency. Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, has returned to Egypt to lead a campaign for reform, hinting that he might run for president. But so far he failed to mobilize the wider public.

Egypt has been governed by emergency laws since 1981, when Mubarak came to office after the assassination of his predecessor, Anwar Sadat.

Maher, the youth activist, says that young people who join the protests against Said's death come out of a sense of shock and not primarily for political reasons. But he believes they are increasingly "making the connection" between the current emergency law, which gives the police extensive powers, and the ruling party, which renewed the legislation earlier this year.

Activists say they know that change is not likely to happen quickly, even if Said's death proves a turning point in the fight to curb state-sanctioned torture.

"The decision to stop torture is political, and it has to come from the president," Bahgat said. "The signs are not good. Beatings of demonstrators started as early as April. This is too early for an election season. I am not optimistic."

-- Financial Times

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