Blood-stained streets from Cairo, Egypt, to Dallas, United States (US), have become the new norm. Though Ferguson, Minneapolis, Baltimore, and New York bear no resemblance to Giza, Alexandria, Ismailia, Luxor, and Cairo, the divide separating police and citizenry in both societies, as well as the political cost of police violence, continue to expand. Why are citizens being killed rather being protected? What are the root causes and where are we heading? These are all necessary questions to pose. The answers are perturbing.
In the US and Egypt, for altogether different reasons, the last two years have seen an ice cream melting in the heat of confrontation, symbolising the trust between citizen and policeman.
To understand the present, we must turn eyes to the past—such is the case with this expansive bloodletting. Former president’s Hosni Mubarak’s rule, in its waning years, saw a proliferation of systematic sadism by Egyptian police. More than a muscular policing, the pattern saw widespread attempts to humiliate Egyptians caught in the policing web.
Video evidence takes us from one gruesome crime to another, committed by the Egyptian police during the Mubarak era. A young woman, her wrists tied with thick rope, dangles from a large piece of wood, blood streaking down her arms, ‘’I’m the one who killed him,’’ she admits—it could be argued, merely to have torture end. Another highly infamous video finds Emad El Kabil curled up, facing the air with a long wooden stick inserted into his rectum. This method of rape is significant for two reasons: it strikes at the heart of the notion of sexual modesty being central to the Arab concept of honour, and remains a preferred modality of operation for Egyptian security services to this day. No less stultifying to anyone with a sense of justice and law are the numerous videos showing violent slapping of prisoners’ faces, while police officers in the background bellow with laughter. Humanity? There wasn’t much there.
Why does a man given the responsibility of enforcing the law choose to, wilfully, break it? At the heart of the matter is police training. From the moment a police cadet enters the police academy, the pasha complex is born. The term, born during Egypt’s colonial past, is infused with power, and conversely smears citizens with an air of inferiority. If a policeman is accorded a status akin to nobility for performing their paid jobs, it is no wonder the paradigm is set up to produce immeasurable amounts of corruption. Moreover, where there is no strongly established check on power, the adage holds true: power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. While it is a coarse reality, Egyptian police does not view fellow citizens as equals. For those in power, this dehumanisation serves the political purpose of keeping citizenry at large in check and pulverizing the vocal political minority.
Events, post the 30 July uprising, best exemplify this interwound dialectic. As the government led by President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi took the reins of power, it made a unilateral decision that protest and alternative voices would not be tolerated. Whether it’s a video of man being brutally beaten by five policemen as he is pulled into a police van, or another being whipped as he cowers defenceless in a fetal position on the ground—the pattern, only weeks after the uprising, was quickly established. In many cases, the violence was in plain sight. The police state was not only back, but looking to establish a new and an even more brutal, in your face, modus operandi.
Fast forward to 2015, and you will find Ragia Omran, a prominent Egyptian human rights lawyer, confirming what is plain to see for most: “the use of extreme force, …torture violations in prisons, and especially in police stations…on the rise’’. El Nadeem Centre for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, a tireless force for documentation of human rights abuses, documented “474 deaths as a result of police brutality’’ last year, coupled with “700 cases of torture’’. That is what we know; what we do not, may be grimmer. This is a reality that includes the execution of five Egyptians in an attempted and failed cover up of another brutal torturous murder of the now well-known Italian graduate student Giulio Regeni. This demented cornucopia of torture, rape, imprisonment, and murder has become the bread and butter of a police force whose actions, the regime claims, is a must to fight terror. Yet, is it not terror when the Egyptian regime is responsible for an “unprecedented spike’’ in forced disappearances to quell dissent and demonstrations of any kind?
What the government fails to mention is that it is, precisely, this sort of state terrorism which only heightens the nation’s terrorism problem; as anger floods the system, both state and group-sponsored terror will only increase.
As with the Egyptian paradigm, the American model of police violence is both systematic, with tentacles reaching far and wide into the nation’s past, and complex. You cannot hope to commence any such examination without using class and race as tools of deconstruction. Unless you have been hibernating in an arctic cave, you have heard of Black Lives Matter. Less known is the All Lives Matter movement. The intersection of these movements and the thought processes driving both forces is a good place to start. No one, who is logical, would disagree with the idea that all lives matter, but at stake here is a linguistic deception. Forces behind the latter camp look to sway public opinion and perception away from the murder of, mostly, young African-American men. Naturally, when a nation has had a darkness such as racism and slavery in the distant past, eclipsing the sun of equality, there must be a focus on a continuing pattern of racism by the vastness that is American policing. A New York Times editorial put it best in the Fall of 2015: “the lives of black citizens in this country historically have not mattered, and have been discounted and devalued’’.
So what does this mean in real terms for African-Americans? The stories are many and are driven by both race and class. If you are African-American, your chances of facing police violence, for instance at a police stop, are disproportionately larger than any other race, Judge Sonia Sotomayor of the Supreme Court argues. “Never run down the street, always keep your hands visible…all out of fear of an officer with a gun.’’ Evidence of the systematically violent choices made by American police from New York to Philadelphia to Baltimore to Cleveland to Los Angeles and beyond is rampant. While not a majority, the number of ‘bad apples’ is divisive and potentially debilitating.
On 9 August 2014, Michael Brown, an 18-year-old African-American male, was fatally shot by the Missouri police. His murder ushered a particularly dark period in US race relations. Officer Wilson, who fired the bullets that killed Brown, was not indicted. Protests that began after Brown’s killing only increased and highlighted the victimisation of African-American males by police in numerous states.
A call came in to Cleveland police, on one not so fine day, where the caller said a juvenile was playing around with what was a “probably fake’’ gun. Tamir Rice, 12, lay dead in a pool of blood less than an hour later. No one can say if the officer wouldn’t have fired if the young boy was white, but google a picture of Tamir and tell me how threatening he looked to two trained police officers.
Few haven’t heard the name Eric Garner. Mr. Garner, a grandfather of 6, was killed by a New York police officer with a choke hold that left him repeatedly saying: ’’I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!’’. Crime? Selling illegal cigarettes. But cigarettes didn’t kill Garner; a police officer’s willingness to use undue violence for a minor offense did that.
Two more recent murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, many believe, directly resulted in a military-trained African-American male taking things into his violent hands and killing five police officers in Dallas last week. Many details of the massacre and the shooter’s history are clear, but likely just as many are hazy at this early stage. Yet, this massacre has left us with a clear warning: state violence begets societal anger, and produces a confrontational binary with police on one side, and victims of injustice on the other. In some cases, this will cause more deaths.
It is a foolish analyst who will attempt to compare such different models of police violence across the globe in the meagre space of one article. What we need to know and understand about the dynamics of police violence in each society is this: police dehumanisation of victims is a major culprit, as are political, economic, and racial tenors of this particular discourse.
Change in policing regiments in Egypt and the US is the primary option.
Remain silent, and we will continue hear the sound of bullets.