Egyptian who led the protest that presaged the Arab Spring now exposes brutality that persists in the government's security forces
Erin Banco is a freelance journalist based in New York and a candidate for a master's degree in public administration at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. Follow her on Twitter @ErinBanco.
Kareem El-Beheiry, 27, was one of the many people arrested, detained, and tortured in the Mahalla uprising on April 6, 2008. Released 50 days later, he emerged as one of the leading voices promoting labor rights in Egypt.
Today, El-Beheiry works to raise awareness about pervasive torture in the country’s prisons, especially in poorer towns like Mahalla, and encourages youth to participate in political demonstrations.
The uprising in Mahalla not only shaped El-Beheiry's future as a labor leader, it also inspired opposition to then-President Hosni Mubarak. The Mahalla strike was the biggest protest Egypt had seen since the 1970s, when workers rallied for higher wages.
Three years after the Mahalla protests, an 18-day uprising in Cairo led to the downfall of Mubarak.
El-Beheiry, his teeth yellow, crooked, with gaps, flashes a grin and calls out to me from across the street: “Yalla, Erin!”
He recalls the Mahalla uprising as we chat at an outdoor cafe.
Police officers with plastic shields and black batons lined the dirt road where he stood. Young men from the textile factory pushed past him and ran to confront the police. Then, the security forces fired rubber bullets. Tear gas canisters flew through the air and fell at his feet.
The protest started after Egyptian workers planned a nationwide strike because of low wages and increasing food prices. The most violent clashes took place in Mahalla, two hours north of Cairo. Chaos ensued for two days as police and men from the factory battled in the streets.
Protesters smashed storefronts and looted businesses. Security forces responded with violence, further inciting the protesters. The result: 2 dead, 100 wounded, and 194 arrested, according to the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram.
El-Beheiry is tall and lanky, his knees barely fitting under the white plastic table in front of Café Hurreya. He is jittery—his right leg bouncing up and down, often knocking the top of the table and spilling his tea.
He speaks in broken English, occasionally slipping into Arabic while describing his imprisonment. The little English he knows he learned on the streets of Cairo working with activists and speaking with western media outlets.
He said that prior to 2008 he was no protester. He went to school, cleaned the house, and did as his mother told him. He thought he would spend the rest of his life in Mahalla working at the very factory he protested against.
He comes from a family that has worked in the textile industry for decades. And no one had ever complained. They went to work, worked the assembly line, and then went home to their families.
Growing up under the dictatorship of Mubarak prevented him from understanding the concept of individual rights, he said. But the Mahalla uprising changed his life.
“The government was systematically making people uneducated,” he said, puffing on a cigarette. “You can see this in the media, especially in the state media which the government controls. People are becoming absent minded because of it.”
El-Beheiry was 23 when the clashes broke out in Mahalla. He had just begun working at the textile factory and did not enjoy the job. It did not pay well and he was required to work long hours. But all of his friends worked there. He said it was the only legitimate way to make a living in his hometown. While he could afford bread and eggs for his family, many of his coworkers could not.That, he said, is why he joined the protest.
El-Beheiry became the face of Mahalla’s story after the Los Angeles Times featured him in a story. He became a quasi-spokesperson for the strike and testified openly about police abuses in prisons. Egyptians started to pay attention to what he had to say about government suppression after he launched what many consider to be one of the most popular activist blogs in the country.
While El-Beheiry still fights for labor rights, today he focuses more on exposing corruption in Egypt’s government, especially among security forces.
On Friday, Egypt's Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi, stood beside the country's top general and warned against "slander" after a report was leaked implicating troops in the killing of protesters.
The officers who run the country’s police stations have been operating with almost total impunity for decades. Previous demands for reform from human rights organizations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have gone unheeded.
In Egypt, anyone arrested expects to be beaten by the officers overseeing them, and, all too often, prisoners are subjected to much harsher forms of brutality, including electrocution, sexual harassment, even starvation, he said.
“Torture has become the norm in Egypt,” he said. “And no one cares anymore. Hitting has become normal, people don’t think of it as torture. They will torture a man every day to scare him and to get information from him because people are scared of retribution.”
We traveled to Mahalla after drinking our tea. He had not traveled to his home in over a year. His mother had never met his son--her only grandson. He rarely gets the chance to visit her, he told me, because the police have him under constant surveillance when he is in town. They have consistently threatened his family, demanding he stop publicly protesting against the security forces.
We visited his family’s apartment where his mother, sisters, and cousins all sleep in two bedrooms. As we walked into the apartment, his youngest nephew crawled to the doorway to great us. El-Beheiry scooped the baby up in his arms and went to his mother and sisters, embracing them all at once. His father died when he was younger, so he has had to provide for his family.
Tareq Hafez, one of El-Beheiry’s cellmates, lives down the street. Hafez and his brother were also arrested in 2008. They served a 3-year sentence in several Egyptian prisons, and faced brutal torture, especially in Alexandria.
“They took me into a ceramic room with air conditioning and steel doors. They used to make me jump on my knees. Then, with a huge stick, they would hit me on my back,” Hafez said. “After a while of being beaten they untied me and left me on the floor.”
El-Beheiry grew visibly anxious as Hafez recalled the brutal torture he endured, throwing his hands by his sides and shaking his head. The memories of his time in prison still upset him, he told me on our way back to Cairo.
El-Beheiry slowly sucked on his last cigarette of the day, blowing the smoke out of the microbus window. It was just past midnight as we pulled into Tahrir Square.
He tries to take the weekends off from work but this particular one he planned to host a baby shower for his son. Jumping off the moving bus, he threw me a plastic box. It was an invitation to the baby shower.
Inside were small chocolate candies inscribed with his son’s name. I looked down at the ribbon that wrapped the box. It read: “yaskut, yaskut, hukm askar" -- Down, down, military rule.
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