By Hussein Magdy*
I have always enjoyed magical realist literature, but I never truly understood it until lately.
Just last month, human rights defenders commemorated the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances across the globe. In Egypt, we commemorated the day by launching a campaign “Stop Enforced Disappearance”. The campaign aims at ending enforced disappearance, securing the return and restitution of victims, and the signing and ratification by the government of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. A number of activists and politicians, including former vice president Mohamed ElBaradei showed solidarity with the campaign. The campaign comes as a response to the alarming growth in enforced disappearance in Egypt.
But I am not writing to expose the gravity of enforced disappearance, as it is a well-documented crime. Instead, I am going to shed light on how reality meets fantasy in Egypt, where the very forces of security and justice, are the gravest threat to Egyptians’ security and justice.
Egypt is witnessing a severe human rights crisis, as the government continues to brutally crack down on the opposition. Security forces have a long history of human rights violations. This history was among the catalysts for the events of 2011, as seen by the popular uprising against security forces. Following the fall of the 30 year dictator Hosni Mubarak, a military junta took power temporarily. Activists forced the junta to hold elections, where the people narrowly electedthe Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate Mohamed Morsi. Finally, popular protests erupted against Mohamed Morsi, and on July 3rd, 2013, the military toppled Mohamed Morsi, and launched a massive crackdown on his supporters, and later on all their political opponents. These episodes witnessed their share of violence and human rights’ abuses. However, the current regime is taking violations to levels, not seen since the end of the nineties. The examples of this are innumerable, from the massacre at Rabaa square, to the 40,000+ political prisoners, to the flagrant cases of torture. And then, there is enforced disappearance.
Security forces are increasingly resorting to enforced disappearance against activists in particular. There are four potential fates for victims. As human rights groups are documenting an increasing number of disappeared activists, we are discovering a systematic process of disappearing political activists. Security forces regularly kidnap them, and deny their presence in dentition centers. Victims usually remain “disappeared,” although they could be found killed, or released after severe torture. The fourth option is that they could end up on Egyptian public television confessing their involvement in attacks against security forces, and facing the death penalty as a result.
On June 1, police forces kidnapped three students: Esraa al-Taweel, who is disabled, and her two friends Omar Ali and Souhaib Sa’ad, all in their early 20s. The three friends were kidnapped while walking along the Nile. Security forced denied any knowledge of the three friends’ whereabouts.
The three of them surfaced gradually, each facing serious charges. Al-Taweel first surfaced after 17 days of disappearance in a female prison, facing charges of belonging to a terrorist organization, and disseminating false information. Ali and Sa’ad remained unaccounted for for 24 days, facing charges of committing terrorist acts.
On July 10, Egyptian public television broadcasted a tawdry video by the military, showing Sa’ad and Ali, along with a number of other individuals confessing to random terrorist attacks, receiving Turkish funds and training terrorists. The video mixes a number of confessions, and a monotonous narrator praises security forces for their valor and vigilance, while describing how a number of 20 years olds constitute the greatest threat to the state. According to the video, they were arrested from their houses with tons of weapons and explosives.
In Gabriel García Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, the town of Macondo is the site of unusual and magical events. But, somehow, these events never feel outside the scope of Macondo’s reality. The supernatural in Macondo is mundane, and Egypt is no different. On August 29, a criminal court sentenced Souhaib Sa’ad to three years in prison. There it was, a court of justice deciding that enforced disappearance and torture are legitimate policing tools. Similar verdicts are abundant.
The story of Al-Taweel, Sa’ad and Ali is but one of many instances, where modern Egyptian reality is conflated with a dystopic fantasy. As tens, if not hundreds, suffer from enforced disappearance, courts of justice are neither protecting nor providing restitution to the victims. Instead, those tasked with ensuring there is justice, along with those who are meant to preserve security, are complicit in committing one of the vilest crimes in Egyptian modern history.
*Hussein Magdy is the programs director at the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms (ECRF).