Tag Archives: police

Egyptian police, 1817-2011: the re-embodiment of punishment

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the ravaged body was made the place of retribution and then held up as a physical deterrent to others, were gradually superseded by a more insidious and subtle concept of justice in which the abstract ideal of the Law was the deterrent, rather than the mangled and mutilated bodies of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.


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Torture in Egypt

A great article on why a fresh start isn’t enough for the Egyptian state security service:

‘What was totally missed in this programme is that police officers work in an environment of total impunity. This is on a legislative level and policy level.

Article 126 of the criminal code, which defines torture in Egyptian law isn’t compatible with the international definition of torture and thus leaves many incidents to be considered as misuse of force. Requests to change this article in the parliament was denied more than once…Currently the army and state media are trying to send a message to people to trust the police force again so they can bring some rule of law to the country. But they miss the point, there was no rule of law before 25th of January because it wasn’t applied to the ruling elite and the police.

Therefore, the government should bring every single person responsible for 30 years of injustice and brutality to justice first. Dissolve the state security apparatus, make the files available (this happened with the Stasi in East Germany) for a judicial commission that will ensure a fair trail for people listed there.’

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Too many kettles not enough tea

So I don’t usually write about things not related to the Middle East, but I feel like the events of the past couple of weeks merit a bit of discussion, if only so that I can sort them out in my head. I also feel as though the more people who add their voices to the discourse on this, the more we can move the focus away from questions such as ‘HOW DID ANARCHISTS GET SO CLOSE TO ROYALS?’ or ‘STUDENT YOBS: HANGING TOO GOOD FOR THEM?’ (NB: only one of those is a genuine Daily Mail headline.)

The usual lines are being repeated, the ones about violent minorities undermining peaceful protest, about police conducting a successful operation in a challenging situation. The message is perpetuated down to the nuances of vocabulary: student yobs ‘charged’ the police, who merely ‘advanced’ against protesters. But it wasn’t a violent minority who undermined peaceful protest. It was the police lines who kettled us before any violence on the part of the protesters, who proceeded to tighten that kettle throughout the night whilst refusing to offer any explanation, who didn’t let us go until 11.30 and then had the gall to laugh at us as we trudged off Westminster Bridge. It was those who, safe behind their riot shields, could drag people out of the crowd and beat them when they were lying on the floor. It was those who horse-charged crowds repeatedly and were no longer ashamed that this was being filmed or photographed. The whole thing was designed either to cow us sufficiently so that we wouldn’t come back and protest again, or to make us so angry that we cracked and could then be painted as the mob, as anarchists, as whatever name would serve to delegitimise us. What the hell is going on when police can horse-charge crowds and this is no longer a surprise? When officers are praised for showing restraint and not opening fire on protesters? It’s no longer enough to talk about two different types of protest, the violent and illegitimate, and the peaceful and legitimate. Try making that distinction to kids trying to hold a line against a police charge. Yet that division keeps being upheld because it’s the last shred of justification the authorities have for what happened on Thursday – which was organised, calculated, and brutal violence. If resisting this attempt to control, inflame, and brutalise makes me part of the violent minority, then I will happily join them.

Disruption like the march on Thursday, or the occupations, or the flash protests, is the expression of a popular power that is increasingly unwilling to legitimise a government with no mandate, imposing decisions that are no better than broken promises. After Thursday, the fight will get tougher; we are now the mob, an illegitimate rabble, undermining law and order, threatening democracy. The calls for violent suppression have grown louder. Yet if democracy is the expression of popular sovereignty, then this is democracy. When institutions fail us, we can organise outside institutions. Occupations like the one I was part of in Cambridge can form alternatives to a parliament that no longer represents us – or, in the case of those too young to vote but who will be hit hardest by tuition fees, never did represent us. This will be called disruptive and illegitimate; but these are names we can be proud of. For if legitimate, peaceful protest is standing meekly by as police baton kids and MPs vote to triple tuition fees, then it’s time we all joined the mob.

And for fuck’s sake, can we stop talking about Charles and Camilla?

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The policing of Area C

On why giving Palestinian police the task of security in Area C (the area placed under Israeli military control after Oslo) would be better for West Bank residents, the Israeli government, and even the settlers:

‘Giving the PA more security responsibility in “C” areas could reduce the threat to settlers. The PA has already shown its commitment to muzzling Israel’s enemies through arresting thousands of suspected Hamas operatives. The militants who killed four Kiryat Arba settlers in August would have struggled to access weapons or evade the intelligence networks in a PA-controlled area.

The Israeli army recognises the need for better power sharing and co-ordination. At a restricted, local level, this is already happening. Talks are continuing over the possibility of opening a Palestinian civil police station in a “C” area of the northern West Bank.

Netanyahu’s government would improve its image by supporting such initiatives. Conceding limited security control to the PA would assert the Israeli prime minister’s independence from the settler right while winning goodwill from the international community. It would encourage the moderates without provoking the extremists.

The PA has the capacity to restore order in “C” areas and it is in Israel’s interests to allow them to. A slow-phased handover would improve security for both sides and engender better relations between the governments. The alternative is to allow “C” areas to degenerate further into violent chaos.’

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Mesha’al, ElBaradei, and the Bulaq Dokrar Crazies

All my colloquial exams are over and I’m back to studying pure MSA – I’d forgotten how beautiful it is. Last push through until Thursday then insha’allah I’ll be back to posting more expansively…

Mesha’al: ‘The Americans contact us, but are not brave enough to do so openly’

Everyone’s favourite former IAEA chief takes a stroll in Old Cairo…

…delivering verbal smackdowns to nearby journalists…

…but is he losing momentum?

Freedom flotilla en route to Gaza

UK attemps to change universal jurisdiction law that is keeping Israeli politicians away

Infiltration of Iraqi police force leads to fear of US departure

‘The Bomb Iran Crowd’ from the Arabist

From nights at the circus to the Bulaq Dokrar Crazies: the Egyptian gap between rich and poor

The failure of the American liberal arts model in Iraq

Arabic literature: is no translation better than a bad translation?

One of the greatest songs by one of the greatest bands of the 80s. yaa Westerberg, bHibak.

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Aah ya qalbi

Speaker of Iranian parliament says nuclear deal is off if sanctions go down

Israel’s collapse according to Nasrallah

The US is running out of time in Afghanistan

Israel’s ‘marriage of convenience’ with apartheid South Africa

Iraqi prison system ‘the perfect environment to reorganise al-Qaida’

Mordechai Vanunu back in prison for parole violations

Egyptian police launch assault on Amonsito workers, arrest several (in Arabic)

…and clear the entire area around the parliament, ending long sit-ins…

…some pictures of the clashes (in Arabic)

Israel’s nuclear policy of nods, winks, and blind eyes

Nazif suggests NDP unwillingness towards Gamal Mubarak

Football violence in Alexandria, security forces attack fans

Masked men destroy UN children’s camp in Gaza

ElBaradei is Iranian stooge, yada yada yada

Prime minister’s post will stay with State of Law, says Maliki

Struggle over Nile water sharing continues

London cabs in Mohandiseen! Definitely be on the lookout for those when I get back to Cairo

Back story to this one: I was going over 26th October bridge one night in a cab and Hakim was playing by the Nile. The driver, a duktuur type with hyuuge glasses and distinguished-looking white bushy eyebrows, became very excited – it transpired that what we were listening to on the radio was a live broadcast of the concert. He started turning the radio off and on again to further illustrate this point: ‘nafs il-shiiy, nafs il-shiiy!’ ‘wa’allah!’, I replied, trying to match his level of enthusiasm. He went on: ‘ohhh…huwa heluw ktiiiir…ya3nii…kul ish-shbaab fi masr yhibuu heda l-ragul!’ Fil haqiqah, the shabab of masr and I somewhat diverge on the subject of Hakim, but this one is enjoying a brief vogue on my Spotify, and as the YouTube summary points out there is ‘dance with some urban flavour’.

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