The following article is heavily indebted to Khaled Fahmy’s 1999 article in Die Welt des Islams, ‘The Police and the People in 19th Century Egypt’. If you have JSTOR access you should look it up, it’s edutaining.
If you were a dishonest market trader in early 19th-century Egypt, you would have good reason to fear the muhtasib, or market inspector. In 1817 Mehmed Ali was reportedly so fed up with the ‘rabble of Cairo’ that he appointed a new muhtasib, who was not shy of handing down harsh and frequently spectacular punishments. Fahmy tells us that kunafa (a kind of vermicelli-based pastry) merchants found to be cheating on prices were forced to sit on their own kunafa pans while still on fire; a counterfeiter of currency was hung from Bab Zuweila with a coin hanging from his nose; and the muhtasib himself slit the noses of butchers caught selling meat at prices higher than those set by Muhammad Ali’s government.
Drawing heavily on Foucauldian theory, Fahmy goes on to outline the limitations of the body as a locus of punishment. These kind of ‘spectacular’ punishments, in which the ravaged body was made the place of retribution and then held up as a physical deterrent to others, were gradually superseded by a more insidious and subtle concept of justice in which the abstract ideal of the Law was the deterrent, rather than the mangled and mutilated bodies of criminals. After all, the body can only withstand so much pain, and the crowd who observe the punishment can only be so big, and thus the spectacle has its limits. The rulers of Egypt, therefore, ‘targeted…the minds of the populace and not their gazes.’
In 1878 a cook named Khayr accused a woman named Zarifa of stealing 1,195 piasters from him. The way in which the case was dealt with shows the effects of this shift, from a system based on physical punishment to one based on abstract ideas of the Law and the inevitable correlation between crime and punishment (which was, increasingly, imprisonment rather than the kinds of physical punishment seen at the beginning of the century). Drawing on material from the National Archives in Cairo – and, as someone who has only just begun to navigate said institution, I credit his persistence – Fahmy tells the story of what happened to Zarifa. On the basis of witness testimony, the Cairo Police Commissioner found her guilty, and sent the case to the courts. After passing through several courts and losing her appeal, Zarifa was sent to the Iplikhane, a textile factory in Bulaq which was used as a women’s prison.
The case is a good example of how a ‘detailed and stratified system of justice’ had developed in Egypt by the latter half of the 19th century. This was based on a close relationship between a complex and sophisticated legal system incorporating shari’a, European, and Ottoman law, and an equally sophisticated police force which played a key role in preventing crime, investigating cases, and bringing them to court, in what Fahmy describes as an early form of the public prosecutor’s office. The police had a wide array of techniques and forces at their disposal. A large network of spies, informants, and other unofficial agents played a key role in solving crimes. The new science of forensic medicine (every police station had to have several doctors on staff, including a female doctor), and the new institution of criminal records (some going back 15 years) also made a big difference to the process of detecting crimes and bringing them to court.
In 1858 a woman called Mahbuba was beaten to death in a village in Upper Egypt by the sheikh of the local village, Sheikh Sha’rawi. Mahbuba’s mother and brother went to both the local qadi (representing the shari’a tradition) and the local police station (representing siyasa law) to accuse Sha’rawi of murder. They seem to have understood the importance of forensic medicine, for they were adamant that Mahbuba should have an autopsy – going so far as to put her body on a camel and travel to the nearest town so that they could find a doctor. After the local shari’a court dismissed the case, the local siyasa tribunal found Sha’rawi guilty and sentenced him to five years imprisonment in Alexandria.
These changes in the police force also represented a fundamental change in the relationship between state and subject. The creation of an efficient police state necessarily implied a wider diffusion of power and a greater intrusion into people’s lives. Forensic medicine, criminal records, and networks of informants were effective precisely because they were mechanisms of state control over the bodies of its populace; but more significantly the ideas of law and justice represented by the new police force were mechanisms of control over their minds.
Thus the site of control and punishment shifted during the 19th century, and it remains the same today. Whatever the brutalities of the Egyptian police force today, they happen behind closed doors, only revealed by clandestine YouTube footage or snatched camera-phone pictures. The Egyptian security services do not go in for the spectacular, as indeed you would expect from a modern police state. The minds of the populace are still targeted, not their gaze. The serried ranks of anonymous policemen, their inexplicable powers of arrest and referral to military tribunal, the very obscurity and lack of accountability of the Ministry of the Interior; it is a faceless, vicious bureaucracy which ravages the mind as much as Mehmed Ali’s muhtasib ravaged the bodies of his unfortunate victims.
Yet, of course, the body is still the locus of punishment. From a recent EIPR press release: ‘The family of the deceased had said that their son was being beaten and tortured over last Tuesday and Wednesday. Essam had told them over the telephone that an officer named ‘Nour’ had inserted water hoses into his mouth and anus and forced him to drink water mixed with washing powder, on suspicion that he had ingested a narcotic substance.’ Essam Atta died two days later. The subtleties of the Egyptian state’s abstraction of punishment, its removal from the public to the private and from the spectacular to the secretive, does not mean that bodies are not still suffering and dying.
What is needed is a re-claiming of the body by the subject. We can put faces to names, these days; thus Khaled Said, Mina Daniel, Essam Atta, and detainees like Alaa Abd el-Fattah adorn Cairo’s streets. The people, in a small way, claim back the bodies which have been appropriated by the state. Hence also the public funerals in Tahrir Square for Atta and Daniel, in which the people literally reclaimed the bodies for their own. The pictures and footage of victims of Maspero, and of every other victim of state brutality in Egypt, are no doubt ghoulish and shocking, but they serve a vital purpose. For we need to re-embody punishment, to make it absolutely clear that this state apparatus operating behind closed doors is, on the most visceral and immediate level, killing people in horrific ways. Mahbuba’s story, in which her family were determined to get an autopsy so that justice could be served, in reminiscent of the fight to secure autopsies for the victims of Maspero. The same struggle for control is still going on and will go on as long as the state believes it has this inviolable right over its subject’s bodies. In stories of torture and detention, the body is the site of truth. Reclaiming it means reclaiming that truth.
Fahmy’s article traces the expansion of police control and its correlation, the expansion of state control. Yet he also argues for a re-reading of the 19th century state to make room for the agency of the people: ‘The modern state lends itself to manipulation and control at the same time as it seeks to monitor and control its population, and its numerous sites of power where the population were supposed to be counted, registered, monitored and controlled, proved to be the sites where the very diffuse power of the state was contested and challenged.’ The terrain of the body is where this contest will be fought. Reclaiming the physical bodies the state has abstracted, and thus re-embodying punishment, is the first step of that contest.