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Resistance and Persistence: An Interview With Aida Seif al-Dawla of the El Nadeem Center

A leading voice in Egypt’s struggle against police violence is facing threat of closure.

Aida Seif al-Dawla, executive director of the El Nadeem Center. (Photo courtesy of Seif al-Dawla and the El Nadeem Center)

El Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, a leading voice in Egypt’s struggle against police violence since 1993, is facing imminent threat of closure by the government. According to the independent Egyptian website Mada Masr: ‘The state justified the [closure] decision by claiming the center’s clinic issues reports “condemning police violations against terrorist groups,” said Suzanne Fayyad, a doctor at Al-Nadeem.’ They are fighting the threat though telling Mada Masr: “Ideas don’t have licenses,” Magda Aly from the center said defiantly. “Even if the center is shut down, efforts to combat torture will never cease.”

The below interview with Executive Director Aida Seif al-Dawla of the El Nadeem Center was conducted over e-mail in the Fall of 2015 and originally published in January of this year in The Abolitionist, a publication of Critical Resistance.

Ali Issa: How has El Nadeem formed its vision and politics?

Aidia Seif al-Dawla: Our intention was to establish a clinic that focused on psychological rehabilitation for victims of torture, during a time when widespread systematic torture had not been recognized as it is now.

Initially, we decided not to include any advocacy or human rights work and to limit our focus to therapy. Although, we did plan to map places where torture had taken place in Egypt. Within two years we realized:

a) The majority of our clients were not “political” but just poor marginalized people in need of help after crossing paths with the police.

b) Torture was rampant and used for a variety of reasons beyond forcing confessions. Torture is used to induce terror, to punish, and to accentuate police power.

c) Where there is police there is the possibility of torture: in police stations, in prisons, in security kiosks, on campuses, in metro stations, and in the inaccessible state security headquarters.

d) Survivors are nation patients in the classical sense, and clinic-based rehabilitation alone cannot meet the needs of victims of torture. Their reaction is a “normal” response to an abnormal situation.

Over the years, people would request legal counseling and aid, publishing their stories, intervention with family reintegration, classes to help them secure employment, etc. Our work evolved to include all of this, tailored according to the needs of the survivor, and gradually we became what you may call a human rights clinic.

Can you speak about El Nadeem’s accomplishments since its founding?

I would say that the main accomplishment of the center is related to the individuals we have supported. The center has helped many people assimilate the trauma, otherwise incoherent. We trained a large number of doctors and lawyers on recognizing and documenting the psychological and physical effects of torture.

On a national level, the center has placed torture on the agenda. When we first published testimony of our clients, people would not believe us. The notion that people have done something to warrant torture was deeply rooted and continues to be the main defense when people don’t want to believe the cruelty of the regime. I believe we have helped shake that.

What is the role of policing and torture in Egyptian society?

The classic notion is that police use torture to coerce confessions, a notion that resulted in the legal definition excluding other forms of brutality. Torture is a cowardly way of stating who is in power. It engenders terror not only in the victim but also in their family, the neighborhood, and wider society.

Political activists who are tortured understand why this is happening to them. Torture falls within the mosaic of their lives. When they are released, they have a “choice” to continue their activism and face that risk again, or stop and hope that it won’t happen again.

But if people are tortured for no reason, the torture they suffer is incoherent. They cannot make sense of it and their family and neighbors often do not believe that they have not done anything. When they are released, they don’t know what it is they should stop doing to avoid this happening to them again. So the safest behavior is not to do anything at all, and that creates a society that is fearful, apprehensive, unquestioningly obedient. Torture maintains the power of the rulers.

Would you discuss the anti-policing roots of the 2011 uprising in Egypt?

By 2011, the brutality of the police was evident to anyone paying attention. Especially among the youth who witnessed this violence first hand during the Palestinian Intifada solidarity movement in 2000, followed by the protests against the US invasion of Iraq, and the prodemocracy demonstrations in 2005 and 2006.

The murder of Khaled Said in 2010, the terrible pictures that went viral on social media, and the determination of his family was a catalyst. Many young people identified with Khaled and he became an icon of a movement against torture and policing. I am not sure that the way the uprising evolved was expected by many, but anger spread from targeting police to the regime as a whole, as reflected in the slogans of the revolution. The temporary “withdrawal” of the police from Tahrir Square after February 11, 2011 reinforced the feeling of triumph among the protesters, and the challenge to police authority continued through the months following the ousting of Mubarak.

It was common to hear people say that the revolution broke the fear in people’s hearts, that the people have tasted dignity and will not give in after that. But the revolution was half fought and half won, if not less, and the repression was brutal.

Can you speak about how the policing of gender and morality served political repression?

An important landmark of the January [2011] revolt was the high participation of young women. And for their involvement and militancy women faced arrests, virginity testing, organized sexual harassment in Tahrir Square and other protest gatherings.

Women protesters were defamed by the media sympathetic to the regime for spending days and nights in Tahrir. Rumors spread regarding illicit sexual conduct in the tents. Some of the protestors were raped in those gang harassments, organized anti-harassment actions to support survivors. But the sexual violence was not limited to women. Once in captivity the harassment was against both men and women and we have horrific testimonies of detainees who were subjected to sexual harassment or outright assault in detention going on to this day.

How have policing and torture in Egypt changed since the uprising of 2011?

Policing and torture have increased. There was no period where the police were “absent” as many claim. They were always there. Even the popular committees which took over protection of neighborhoods, as many testified later, were infiltrated by police in plainclothes.

There was however some change over the last four years: the perception of victory, the entitlement to rights, the sense that the people can defy police continued until June 30th, 2013.

Immediately after the ousting of Mubarak in 2011, the army took over enforcement of “discipline” and the police were reorganizing themselves. During the one year rule of Morsi, it appeared that the rank and file of the Muslim Brotherhood were taking over this role. They were the ones who stopped the protests, who clashed with protesters and who did the dirty job of torture at the Presidential Palace on December 4th, 2012, which to my mind was the breaking point for their rule in Egypt.

With the ousting of Morsi and the takeover by the army again, even if behind the façade of Adly Mansour for a year then Sisi, brought us to where we are now. Torture, extrajudicial killings, disappearances, collective death sentences, etc. But the horror of it all lies in the wide acceptance of those violations as a necessity to save the country from “terrorism.” People have reported on their neighbors, in one instance a son and in another on a daughter. In the meantime, the police have grown their forces, secured legitimacy and we are not only back to square one, but to something new that I have not witnessed in my life of 60 years.

How do you connect with people fighting for liberation and against political repression elsewhere around the world? Have you followed the movement in the US that spread in response to the killing of Mike Brown?

My connection remains in following the news, but I know several young protestors who were active in the 2011 revolt that have done more. They have made contacts, some have travelled, participated and reported.

In Egypt we are living through a tough defeat and many people are demoralized. El Nadeem and many others remain persistent. We have lived through periods where we are defamed and criticized by lifelong friends, some by their family, relationships and friendships broken, and there were times when one wondered how can this be, should one stop, is it worth it. But as a rehabilitation center, we saw how we helped people who would have otherwise been alone. Depending on the political situation, we were either praised as heroes or abused as agents. But the wave of hostility would ebb and we are encouraged by a person who healed here or another who found a job there, and we charge our batteries and continue. Especially the therapists who are doing a great job.

The only message I have is to persist, through the good and bad times.

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