In support of Khaled Said

In support of Khaled Said

Following weeks during which Mohamed El-Baradei seemed to disappear from the public eye, the former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) paid a high-profile visit to Alexandria on 25 June.

El-Baradei — for the first time accompanied by his wife and many family members — joined a demonstration to protest against the killing of 28- year-old Khaled Said, allegedly at the hands of the police. He began his visit to Alexandria by going to the house of Said’s parents to pay condolences. He then went to the nearby mosque in Sidi Gaber on foot to attend the Friday sermon. Clad in a black jacket, he was accompanied by tens of media people and supporters, mostly made up of the pro-reform 6 April Movement.

El-Baradei emerged from the Friday sermon and prayers, which lasted for almost an hour, to a crowd of between 2,000 and 3,000 who had gathered outside the mosque despite it being cordoned off by Central Security police forces. An estimated 1,000 people were prevented by the police from joining the protest, though some political activists, including Ayman Nour, leader of the liberal Ghad Party, Hamdeen Sabahi, opposition MP and leader of the Nasserist Karama Party, Osama El-Ghazali Harb, the journalist leader of the liberal Democratic Front Party, Abdel-Halim Qandil and George Ishaq from Kifaya and Tagammu Party member Abul-Ezz El-Hariri, were allowed through.

The Muslim Brotherhood, which two weeks ago agreed to help El-Baradei collect signatures for his petition demanding reform, maintained a noticeably muted presence, sending just three of its leaders — MPs Hamdi Hassan, Saber Abul- Fotouh and Ali Abdel-Fattah — to the rally.

Saad El-Katatni, leader of the Brotherhood’s parliamentary bloc, promised in a meeting with El-Baradei early in June that the movement would throw its weight behind the National Assembly for Change’s (NAC) political reform campaign.

A 6 April activist told Al-Ahram Weekly that, “the Brotherhood has betrayed and sold El-Baradei at the first test. Their participation in El-Baradei’s rally in solidarity with the victims of police and emergency law torture was very weak,” the 6 April activist said. “It shows that the Brotherhood can never be trusted.”

Another surprise came when NAC founders Hamdi Qandil, and novelist Alaa Al-Aswani, declined to join El-Baradei’s rally in Alexandria, reflecting what many say is a rift within the NAC’s ranks.

Protesters at the Sidi Gaber rally brandished placards saying “Long Live Egypt”, “Condolences to Freedom” and “Killed by Barbarians”. They also chanted slogans against Minister of Interior Habib El-Adli, blaming government policies for proliferation of torture in police stations and prison cells.

In a statement issued on 24 June, a day before the Alexandria protest, New York-based Human Rights Watch said “photographs of Said’s mangled face as well as eyewitness accounts constitute strong evidence that plainclothes security officers beat him in a public and vicious manner”.

The Interior Ministry claims Said died from asphyxiation after swallowing a bag of marijuana when approached by police officers.

To the dismay of protesters El-Baradei left the demonstration after 20 minutes. Though El-Baradei said it had been scheduled in advance that he would attend the Sidi Gaber Mosque protest for just 20 minutes, some protesters attributed his sudden exit from the demonstration to the shouting of anti-Mubarak slogans.

A 6 April activist told the Weekly that, “when El-Baradei heard the anti-Mubarak chants he decided to leave at once, insisting that such chants had no part in what was supposed to be a silent demonstration in solidarity with Khaled Said and other victims of torture”.

El-Baradei nonetheless urged his supporters to continue participating in anti-torture demonstrations. In a Facebook message, he said “without demonstrating for our rights, we will never be able to secure the change we want.”

“The message of the Alexandria demonstration is clear: this must be the last time we witness such police torture in Egypt,” he told protesters. “I hope the regime gets the message. If it does not there will be serious consequences.”

El-Baradei was quoted by Reuters as saying that, “the gathering of people from all walks of life and the anger they expressed against routine torture is a message to the regime that Egyptians are against such inhumane practices.”

El-Baradei’s appearance in Alexandria drew mixed reactions. Hassan Nafaa, Cairo University political science professor and NAC coordinator, believes the Baradei-led anti-torture demonstration was a big success.

“It is the first time that thousands of Egyptians have taken to the street to protest against the regime and the practices of its security forces,” said Nafaa. “Thousands more wanted to join but security forces and plainclothes secret police did their best to intimidate them.”

Saber Abul-Fotouh, Brotherhood MP for Alexandria, said “the symbolic participation of the Muslim Brotherhood in El-Baradei’s anti-torture rally in Alexandria on 25 June was intentional.”

“The rally,” he continued, “was a success. It attracted wide local and international media coverage, alerting the attention of the world to the prevalence of torture in Egypt.”

The ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) reacted coolly to El-Baradei’s presence at the rally. Mustafa Elwi, a Cairo University political science professor and NDP appointed member of the Shura Council, told the Weekly that, “the 25 June rally in Alexandria shows that the NDP regime is not as coercive or repressive as some local and international media claim.”

“It shows that the emergency law is not an obstacle to political activities. Demonstrations and street protests are allowed as long as they do not disrupt the routine of everyday life,” Elwi said. “The 25 June rally also demonstrates that the media are allowed to cover events freely. They do not face the obstacles imposed by many neighbouring Arab countries,” he continued.

Elwi, however, believes that the media exaggerated the numbers of people who joined the El-Baradei rally. “Those who joined were El-Baradei’s supporters and media people. Ordinary citizens decided to keep away, not as a result of police intimidation but because they knew the event was organised to promote political interests rather than showing true sympathy with Khaled Said.”