Published June 10, 2011
In Alexandria, they wore black. In Cairo, they stencilled his name and now familiar visage onto the outer walls of the Ministry of Interior. And in Ash Sharqiyah and Damanhour they brandished signs that called for an end to the temporizing that has characterized the legal proceedings against his alleged killers.
On June 6, thousands of Egyptians in cities across the country commemorated the anniversary of the death of Khaled Said, the 26-year-old killed by state security forces in Alexandria last year. Organized mainly by the April 6 Youth Movement, the demonstrations, though differing in size from town to town, had one feature in common: all were marked by silent vigils in memory of the young man whose violent end had galvanized many ordinary Egyptians to take part in the events of Jan. 25 and thereafter. In Cairo, scores of young people lined the Kasr al-Nil bridge in solidarity, while in Alexandria over one thousand local residents accompanied the family of Said on a walk to the site of his tombstone, according to reports.
The memorials served as a sharp reminder, if any was necessary, that the transitional justice process in Egypt is still taking shape. Amid the sound of chants– "Khaled Said, you’re a witness and a martyr,” and "We’re all Khaled Said” –protesters in downtown Cairo expressed their anger and disappointment at the long delay in handing down convictions against the secret police officers accused of his murder. The trial resumed on May 21 after a two-month hiatus.
Demonstrators also criticized what they viewed as attempts on the part of the state security services and, by extension, the Interior Ministry, which oversees the police and intelligence forces, to cover up the killing of Said. Acting Prime Minister Essam Sharaf dismissed the previous chief coroner, al-Sebaay Ahmed al-Sebaay, in April, after his office released a report alleging that Said had choked to death on a roll of marijuana. Last year, al-Sebaay’s predecessor, Dr. Ayman Fouda, gave an interview with the independent al-Masry al-Youm newspaper in which he contradicted the autopsy report including the allegations of Said’s drug use. Medical examiners enjoy partial immunity from prosecution under the law.
The memorials come at a delicate time for the Interior Ministry, as criticism of police abuses as well as military tribunals and other interim means of enforcing order continues to grow. On June 8, the Ministry announced it had printed 175-page brochures, free to the public, which explain the rights of citizens and protocols for dealing with the police. The accompanying press release explained that these brochures would be available from police stations and the offices of civil society organizations.
Meanwhile, Kenneth Roth, the director of Human Rights Watch, arrived in Cairo to meet with representatives of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the transitional military government presently running the country. And the American University in Cairo convened a three-day conference to coincide with the anniversary of Khaled Said’s death on the theme “From Tahrir: Revolution or Democratic Transition?” The conference featured academics from 25 international universities as well as individuals from think tanks and other non-governmental organizations.
One of the conference’s panels was dedicated to the theme of “Restructuring the Entrenched Security Apparatus,” including the special security forces accused of killing Said. Chaired by AUC professor Bahgat Korany, the panel criticized the lack of a clear distinction between police work and intelligence activities, and accused the security forces of exploiting public fear of insecurity to maintain military tribunals and other features of the still extant Emergency Law. An April poll by the International Republican Institute found that over 50 percent of Egyptians felt security had become much worse in the past year.
The day following the panel, one of its participants, Hossam Bahgat, director the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, an independent rights organization, gave an television interview in which he called for reforms to the security service in order to restore public confidence in the rule of law.
Those who paid tribute to Khaled Said on Kasr al-Nil bridge echoed these sentiments. One participant named Mounir, who declined to give his last name, listed the surviving Emergency Law, police brutality, and military tribunals as still lingering issues of popular dissatisfaction. He added that he was moving on from the bridge to join the crowds assembling outside the Ministry of the Interior. “A year ago, we would never have gone to the Ministry of Interior [to demonstrate] at all,” he said. “Now we are drawing the face of Khaled Said on front door.”
Tom Francis, a graduate student at Yale University, is reporting from Cairo on Egypt in transition.