Egypt's dirty war (part I): Baptised in blood
Updated: Apr 10, 2020
Since 2013, Egypt's Sisi has conducted a 'war on dissent' through an extreme form of militarised policing,
Gamal Khairy is an Al-Azhar University student in his early 20s from the southern Egyptian province of Menya. He was detained by the state security police in February 2016, while visiting his uncle in the Suez Canal city of Ismailia.
An Egyptian judge, last November, confirmed a 15-year-prison sentence for Khairy, after he was found guilty of involvement in the assassination of the country's public prosecutor in the summer of 2015.
The young man was accused of several charges, including the possession of firearms, and training his fellow defendants on the use of firearms and sniping, according to his lawyer. There was a little problem however with the police narrative, which Khairy's lawyer and family tried repeatedly in vain in court to convey to the judge: Khairy is blind.
Islam el-Refai is a 29-year-old tech startup entrepreneur, and a secular satirical blogger, whose social media feeds are usually about sex, pornography, funny GIFs and trending memes.
He seldom comments on anything remotely political and has never joined any dissident group. In November 2017, el-Refai disappeared in downtown Cairo after he left a bar, only to resurface later in prison, where he is currently held, accused of "joining an illegal terror organisation and spreading fake news."
Khairy and el-Refai are a sample of the swelling political prisoners and detainee population, currently estimated by rights watchdogs to be roughly 60,000 persons. These people are victims of an ongoing onslaught by the Egyptian army and police, who carried out a coup on 3 July 2013 and who operate under the guise of their "war on terror" combatting Islamist extremists in Sinai, the Nile Valley and the Western Desert neighbouring Libya.
In reality, however, it has been essentially a war on dissent, modelled along the "dirty war" strategy that promotes an extreme form of militarised policing. The aim? Population control, crushing the Egyptian revolution that started on 25 January 2011, and using the insurgent threat as an excuse.
The dirty war doctrines, strategy and tactics adopted by the Egyptian regime draw on a long tradition of counterinsurgency campaigns. Such experiences include a previous local dirty war waged under Honsi Mubarak, by the same security services which were barely reformed after the revolution.
Following the defeat of the 2011 revolutions, the "war on terror" narrative has once again has become central to the Arab regimes - most notably Abdel Fattah el-Sisi's - to legitimise their existence in the eyes of the population and international allies.
There are, however, also striking parallels between the actions of the Egyptian security services and those of Latin America's military dictatorships in the 1970s and 80s, or even colonial campaigns by the French in Algeria and Vietnam, or the British in the Malaya and Kenya.
In fact, the term "dirty war" was coined by the Latin American experience, during the period 1954-1990, when military dictatorships waged war on dissidents; in Argentina from 1976-1983, Paraguay (1954-1989), Brazil (1964-1985), Bolivia (1971-1981), Uruguay (1973-1985), and Chile (1973-1990).
All the above campaigns involved different levels of mass counter-terror unleashed by the states on the population for the sake of public control, to achieve different political goals mostly revolving around the protection of the current status quo in the face of a perceived insurgent threat.
Baptised in blood
In Egypt, after series of bloody crackdowns with live ammunition against unarmed protesters opposed to the military coup, on the 14 August 2013, the security forces, backed by the army under then-minister of defense Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, raided two camps of protesters in Cairo and Giza, killing at least 817 people. It's the largest massacre in the history of modern Egypt.
A month later, on 23 September 2013, the army announced, in bold font on the frontpage of the state-run daily Al-Ahram, it "will rid Egypt of terrorism within days, maximum within a week".
Daily raids were conducted during which the police and army initially targeted Muslim Brotherhood leaders and members, before expanding the crackdown into a full onslaught on dissent of all political shades, even including politicians and activists who initially endorsed the coup, secular leftists, liberals, writers, artists, lawyers and members of the LGBTQ community.
University campuses - long considered a no-go zone for security forces - were raided by the riot police and special forces. Students were shot and killed in broad daylight on campus. The army's elite paratroopers were brought in on several occasions to crush peaceful protests by female students of Al-Azhar University, east of Cairo.
Factory organisers have also become the target of crackdowns, and strike leaders are sometimes referred to military tribunals. Industrial action is outlawed and sometimes met with force. Independent trade unions, which mushroomed after the 2011 revolution, were stifled with new laws and direct repression, and occasionally the co-opting of upper ranks.
Sinai's killing fields
In the Sinai peninsula, a low intensity insurgency had already been in place since 2004, when the government rounded up and tortured thousands of young local men, following attacks on resorts.
The insurgents upheld radical Islamist beliefs, but already decades of marginalisation and racist treatment by the central government towards Sinai locals helped provide favourable conditions for recruitment.
Increasingly under the rule of Mubarak, but later, on steroids after the coup, the Egyptian army relied on strategy and tactics borrowed heavily from the dirty wars: Mass counter-terror was unleashed, while collective punishment was imposed on the towns and cities of northern and central Sinai.
The border city of Rafah was entirely demolished; its population forcefully relocated. The army used cluster bombsand executed suspects extrajudicially. Videos and photos were leaked exposing the army's executions of innocent civilians, after which guns would be placed beside the corpses and photographed to allege that the executed men were insurgents.
The urban centres in northern Sinai are subject to almost daily raids. Men of all ages are regularly rounded up and tortured. Some disappear for months, and resurface in prisons, military courts, or as dead corpses on roadsides. On occasions women are targeted too.
Videos were leaked online of soldiers torturing local men, or forcing them to sing the Egyptian national anthemwhile blindfolded and handcuffed. Occasionally, pictures appear online of officers and soldiers taking selfies with mutilated corpses, or parading chopped heads of suspects, in barbaric scenes that are hardly different from the Islamic State (IS) terrorists they say they are fighting.
Arish, the provincial capital of northern Sinai, has been placed under siege, and food supplies dropped sharply for extended periods of time. The army's brutal tactics create fertile ground for terror recruitment and militancy.
Despite the regular announcements by military and security officials that the violence is nearing its end, the insurgency in Sinai continues to be deadly and poses an escalating threat against the army, police and sections of the local population.
Under Sisi's rule, thousands of civilians continue to face military tribunals and exceptional courts, where the minimum standards of a fair trial do not exist, and draconian sentences are meted out.
Forced disappearances of dissidents and suspects remain common. Torture in custody is endemic and systemic, as noted by local and international rights groups.
The army and the police have no shame about airing confessions of suspects on TV, whose faces are bruised; a clear sign of the torture they went through.
Hundreds of dissidents, human rights activists and journalists have been slapped with travel bans, turning the country literally into an open air prison. Thousands of activists who managed to flee remain in exile fearing for their safety, and cannot return to Egypt. Their families back home are targets of harassment by the security services.
And to host the ever growing prison population, at least 16 new prisons have been built since the coup, reaching a total of at least 63 prisons in the country, in addition to hundreds of smaller detention facilities run by the security services, the army and the ordinary police. Conditions in prisons are tomb-like, where inmates face a slow death due to ill-treatment.
Some dissidents have been in solitary confinement for up to five years.
This is part I of II.
Hossam el-Hamalawy is a journalist and labour activist from Cairo.