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Egypt: Five years after a revolution
02:37 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

A rights group has documented 474 deaths in police custody and 700 cases of torture in 2015 alone

Interior minister: "They are necessary because of the reality we live in"

Cairo CNN  — 

Thousands gathered in Tahrir Square in January 2011 to protest police brutality. The chants quickly turned against the regime as demonstrators clashed with security forces across Egypt.

Eighteen days later, Hosni Mubarak was forced out of office after 30 years in power. The Arab Spring was in full force.

But five turbulent years later, complaints about police brutality and the use of deadly force persist.

“We are in a worse off position than we were in Mubarak years,” human rights lawyer Ragia Omran told CNN.

“Conditions in prisons are extremely poor. If we look at all the reports by independent and national and international human rights organizations on the use of extreme force, violence, torture, violations in prisons and especially in police stations has gone up.”

The Nadim Center, a local rights group, documented 474 deaths in police custody and 700 cases of torture in 2015 alone.

Youssef, not his real name, talked to CNN about what happened after he was arrested.

“With two wires they electrocuted me in the chest and the back. I was screaming in pain,” said the university student.

The officer interrogating him upped the voltage.

“The shock sent me and two guys holding me back a few meters,” Youssef said.

Youssef was in prison for over a year, facing a multitude of charges ranging from protesting to planning a coup. The day he received a release order he was taken to National Security, the top police agency. For two weeks, his family had no idea where he was. He describes what happened there as the worst phase of his torture.

He said he was beaten every day and electrocuted repeatedly in sensitive areas of his body.

“It was the first time in my life that I cried this hard. I felt extremely weak, impotent and crushed,” he said, recalling one night of severe beatings. “I felt that I wanted to end this. I wanted to die. I wanted to be relieved of this torture.”

In the bathroom that night, he broke a piece of glass to cut the main artery on his neck.

“I didn’t see an end to this. I had hope that I would be released and get out. I did get a release order and then they put me back in prison. I was totally desperate,” he said.

Youssef decided against suicide at the last minute. He was released days later but remains on the run and under the threat of arrest.

Rights groups say out of hundreds of cases of “forced disappearances” many have reappeared in prisons days or months later. Others’ whereabouts remain unknown.

“Five years after euphoric crowds celebrated the fall of President Hosni Mubarak, the hopes that the ’25 January Revolution’ would herald a new era of reforms and respect for human rights have been truly shattered. Egyptians have been made to watch as their country reverts back to a police state,” said Said Boumedouha, Amnesty International’s deputy Middle East and North Africa program director.

“Tens of thousands have been arrested and the country’s prisons are now overflowing, with widespread reports of torture and hundreds held without charge or trial.”

Government challenges

The Interior Ministry didn’t get back in time with answers to CNN questions about reports of police violations. In a recent interview, the interior minister said security agencies are careful not to repeat the mistakes of the past and continue to work within a legal framework.

“Questions are being raised now about some practices that violate human rights. Well, they are necessary because of the reality we live in. We are facing a ferocious wave of terrorism that Egypt hasn’t witnessed in modern history,” Minister Magdy Abdel Ghaffar told state TV last week.

Violent extremist groups have mainly targeted security forces, especially in the Sinai peninsula, killing hundreds of police and army personnel and civilians.

Last November, ISIS claims a bomb they planted brought down a Russian plane flying from Sharm El-Sheikh, wrecking tourism in the popular Red Sea resort town.

The government says the investigation has yet to reveal if terrorism was the cause of the crash that killed more than 200 people on board. The impact on the economy is undeniable.

“With double-digit inflation, with stagnation on wages, on employment kind of failing to recover, the tourism sector collapsing, there is a lot of stress on the population and their ability to cope is quite limited,” Timothy Kaldas, with the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, told CNN.

The country has depended on generous loan and aid packages from its neighbors in the Gulf. The results of mega projects like the expansion of the Suez Canal have yet to be felt by the public.

The government’s proclaimed achievement of electing the parliament is debatable, especially since lawmakers have so far approved almost all the laws issued by the President last year.

President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi often notes the challenges and the achievements, calling for patience and hard work.

“Today’s Egypt is not yesterday’s. We build together a civilian, modern and advanced state that upholds values of democracy and freedom and continues its developmental path and the building of its economy,” el-Sisi said Sunday in a televised speech marking the fifth anniversary of the 2011 revolution.

Once the defense minister, el-Sisi removed his Islamist predecessor Mohamed Morsi from power in the wake of mass protests in 2013. That year, security forces killed more than 1,000 Morsi supporters encamped in two Cairo sit-ins and thousands have been arrested since. A year later, el-Sisi won presidential elections by a landslide.

Who’s in prison?

Now, many of the activists who once led calls for democratization are in prison.

The 2011 revolution has become associated with the violence and chaos that marred the country in the following years and its icons are often vilified in the media. One lawmaker refused to take the customary oath because it meant recognition of the 2011 revolution.

Faint calls for protests to mark the anniversary came from some Islamist groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, which the government labels as a terrorist organization. Sensing a lack of support on the ground and acknowledging the futility of street action under a restrictive protest law, most opposition forces say they won’t take to the streets on January 25 this year.

Still, police have cracked down on any perceived threat, arresting citizens and raiding private residences and cultural centers in central Cairo.

“Sooner or later we would have paid the price of our participation in the revolution,” publisher Mohamed Hashem told CNN.

The downtown Cairo office of his Merit Publishing House has been hosting artists and intellects calling for change for almost 20 years. Security forces raided it this month but it remains open.

“Art played a big role and it will remain a catalyst for freedom. Art is an infinite universe of freedoms without a ceiling,” said Hashem, his eyes brightening with hope. “Culture is spearheading the battle against the military fascism, religious fascism and any power that threatens humans’ freedoms and dignity.”

In prison, hope is elusive.

Despite Youssef’s optimism about a new generation politicized since a young age, his reality remains grim.

“The Egyptian regime now is the biggest aide of terrorist organizations through oppressing and terrorizing youth inside prisons,” Youssef said. “There is no way out for large sectors to vent their anger except through terrorist organizations.”