top of page

For an Egyptian author, examining torture is her mission

CAIRO (AP) — As torture and abuse by police in Egypt becomes more common, one of Basma Abdel-Aziz's worries is that people now see it as normal or as part of the tough hand needed to keep stability.

A psychiatrist who has treated victims of torture for a decade, Abdel-Aziz says families sometimes greet it with a shrug. If a loved one has been beaten by police but not killed, their response is often, "Good that that's all it was," she said.

The effects of autocracy on people and society has long been the focus of research for Abdel-Aziz, an author and activist who is one of Egypt's keenest observers of torture's decades-old legacy in the country. She's one of the generation of activists in their 20s, 30s and 40s who chipped away at autocracy before the 2011 uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak and are back doing the same again now after the failure of their hopes for democracy.

Her work has gained greater relevance at a time when rights activists say police abuses have risen as the government of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi cracks down on Islamist opponents and other dissenters and fights an insurgency by Islamic militants.

The author of eight books, the 40-year-old Abdel-Aziz's one novel, "The Queue," was published this year in English translation in the United States, an Orwellian tale of a man living in an imaginary country under an authoritarian regime.

She says now people in Egypt are only moved to anger over the most extreme abuse that leads to death or maiming.

"What I fear the most is the day when we even find tolerance in our hearts for death as a result of torture," she said in an interview with The Associated Press.

The roots of acceptance are in a patriarchal culture, she believes.

"People accept mild forms of abuse of children and wives," she said — and from there, other forms become seen as reasonable.

The latest controversy came last week when a 53-year-old street vendor died in police custody. His lawyer and family said he was beaten to death after an argument with a police officer, and photos emerged of his bloodied body. Prosecution officials say they are investigating.

The Interior Ministry, in charge of security forces, denies torture is systemic among police and says cases of abuse are isolated acts that are investigated. Last week, a police officer was sentenced to life imprisonment for killing a street vendor earlier this year in an argument over a cup of tea. Many similarly convicted policemen in the past have been acquitted on appeal.

"There is no place for torture in the prisons," el-Sissi said in an interview this week with the Portuguese TV network RTP. "If it happens, then it is illegal and anyone who commits this in Egypt will be held accountable."

Rights groups say abuse is on the rise. The Nadeem Center, Egypt's top NGO for the rehabilitation of violence victims, said it documented 600 cases of police torture in 2015 — ranging from beatings to use of electrical shocks — and that 100 people died in police custody. In the first five months of this year, it tracked 349 cases of torture, 12 deaths from torture, 32 deaths in prison from medical neglect and 18 people killed by police in street arguments.

Abdel-Aziz said abuse has become worse even than the days of Gamal Abdel-Nasser, the charismatic strongman of the 1950s and 1960s whose security agencies were notorious for torturing dissidents. Furthermore, supporters of el-Sissi and pro-government media urge an even heavier crackdown, which they say is needed to prevent Egypt from falling into chaos like other Mideast nations.

"The police and security agencies are not at all concerned about their image," said Abdel-Aziz, who worked at the Nadeem Center between 2002 and 2012.

"There is a message to the public too: it will never be just a couple of slaps after which you are sent home," she said.

Abdel-Aziz drew often on her work with patients at the Nadeem Center for her books examining the mechanisms of police power and the effect of torture on its victims.

In her 2014 book, "The Memory of Oppression," she also interviewed police officers, who described how they were sucked into abusing detainees after initial reluctance. Senior officers pressured them and ridiculed them as weak if they refused. After a time, she said, they became numb or even enjoyed it, rationalizing it as part of protecting the nation.

"They confirmed to me the notion that most people, under specific circumstances and in a specific environment, can become torturers," she said.

Abdel-Aziz was politically attuned from a young age, reading leftist newspapers and often rebelling at the Catholic school she attended in Cairo. She would also blow off class to play the piano or visit art exhibits. Today, she still sculpts and paints, holding several successful shows.

At Cairo's Ein Shams University Medical School in the 1990s, she was active in student movements. As a result, she was denied a teaching position after graduation because security officials — who review university appointments — did not clear her.

Instead, she joined the Nadeem Center. She was in part inspired by a case reported by the center: an elderly farmer who died after police set him on fire, trying to make him confess to stealing a goat.

And she turned to writing. In 2008, her "What Lies Behind Torture" studied the mindset of torturers. Her next book, "The Temptation of Absolute Power," tracking the history of police abuses, hit the bookshops on Jan. 28, 2011, three days into the uprising against Mubarak. The revolt was prompted in part by anger over police abuses, and Abdel-Aziz was among the protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square.

After Mubarak's fall, it became clear that abuse continued.

Abdel-Aziz recounted how, later in 2011, she treated a man who, bloodied and weeping, showed up at a protesters' field clinic in Tahrir. He had been sodomized with a stick and had cigarette burns on his body. The man told her he'd been detained as he left a wedding and was interrogated by police who believed he knew the whereabouts of a wanted man.

Abdel-Aziz currently works in the Health Ministry department that oversees mental hospitals. She has published two collections of short stories and is working on a new novel.

In her most recent book, "The Domination of Text," she directed rare criticism at Egypt's foremost seat of Islamic learning, Al-Azhar, exploring how it has used its revered status to manipulate public opinion for the benefit of the government.

"Her writings represent literature of the post-January revolution, which opened the door for tackling topics that had not been acceptable or available, like oppression by society or the regime," said Sonallah Ibrahim, one of Egypt's best known novelists.

Abdel-Aziz's 2013 novel "The Queue" provided a look into autocracy's numbing effects.

In it, the protagonist struggles in a fruitless quest to prove he was shot by police during a protest. He seeks redress at "the Gate," where thousands stand in line hoping to meet someone in authority. The gate never opens.

When a friend tries to help him, she is detained and tortured in a graphic scene aimed at showing how abuse crushes a person's identity.

"She wished they would beat her, she said she was ready to be tortured," the scene reads. She "bit her lips to feel her own blood inside her mouth, but she tasted nothing. Nothing, again. Maybe she really was nothing, had never existed."

bottom of page