Security responses: Transparency, fear or spin?

Are the Egyptian authorities, government, prosecutors and the Interior Ministry playing defense? A reading into their recent statements in the media–mainly the state-owned press and papers tagged as government mouthpieces–suggests that a change in the state PR machine’s attitude in dealing with sensitive matters, such as torture in detention and tribal clashes in Sinai, may be taking place.

Two incidents have recently given away the Interior Ministry’s–and, in turn, the government’s–fears about increasing protests and popular outrage across Egypt: torture victim Khaled Saeed’s death and Bedouin clashes in Sinai.

It seemed that the price of silence was perhaps too high there, since, simultaneously, attention has focused on police repression and brutality on two fronts: the capital, where the central government is, and the northern front, considered one of the most vulnerable areas in Egypt because of shared borders with Israel and the Gaza Strip.

The week-long armed clashes in June between local authorities in North Sinai and Bedouin tribesmen were caused by anger over the “repression” tribes claim they have been enduring for years. Many of their fellow tribesmen remain detained without charge for unconfirmed terror ties.

Any disruption in the latter area is dangerous because of the perceived disloyalty of the Bedouin tribes to Egypt and the continuous distrust between them and local police. The Bedouin were blamed for terrorist attacks on Egyptian interests, including tourist sites in Sharm el-Sheikh and before it in Dahab–and, most recently, for attacks on a national gas pipeline. In such incidents, Bedouin towns were raided and tribesmen arrested en masse, many of whom were held for weeks–even years–without charge.

In short, relations there are very volatile, and could easily slip out of control.

In the past, news of tribal clashes with police were often left unreported by state media, especially Al-Ahram and Al-Akhbar, or tucked away in inside pages. The coverage was often one-sided, with a brief statement from a local official without commentary from the tribes. Independent newspapers who ran “hot” stories from this area were often accused of  “rumor-mongering” by the Interior Ministry, and in many cases their coverage was met with silence from the authorities.

But during the last two weeks, things have changed–or have seemed to. The last week of June and the first week of July witnessed intense coverage, with Al-Ahram running almost daily updates from the Sinai Peninsula. The spots which were exclusively reserved for National Democratic Party, parliament- or President Hosni Mubarak-related news were occupied by reports about Sinai arrests, Interior Ministry statements, news of reconciliation efforts between police and the Bedouin, etc.

Accurate coverage? Not quite. The stories carried many “muscle-flexing” statements by police who claimed that everything was “under control” and by government reassurances that the demands of the Sinai population were being met, including the provision of services that would make their life easier. On 30 June, the ministry told the national press that “200 disputes in Sinai had been reconciled” and that investigations into suspects detained for years without charge were being frozen.

But despite failing to reveal the full picture of what was happening in the peninsula, the continuous coverage–and the obvious attempts at restoring calm–is revealing.

Only this Sunday, Al-Ahram ran with a bold headline, reading, “Calm in Sinai,” followed by a sub-headline reading, “Six detainees released, with the rest to be released in coming days.” The story itself carried news of a meeting between Interior Minister Habib el-Adly and Bedouin leaders–the first of its kind.

The reconciliation efforts that followed the clashes have, all of a sudden, become official.

Independent newspapers and international media, meanwhile, reported wide protests in Sinai. Moussa el-Delhi, a Bedouin leader in Amro Valley in Central Sinai, told Reuters that the much-hyped meeting had been “a failure” and that Bedouin had “marched in protest from the Amro Valley to other villages to demand improved treatment and the release of detainees.”

On 7 June, the Interior Ministry announced that, in keeping with its earlier promise to release uncharged detainees, it had set free 15 more Bedouin tribesmen. At the same time, however, independent newspapers insisted that tensions in the peninsula were still running high.

Considering that hundreds remain behind bars, releasing less than 15 people every fortnight is a trickle. “One of the main demands, the release of Bedouin leader Mosaad Abul-Fajr, was not met. People had expected that,” said anti-torture activist and head of the Cairo-based El Nadeem Rehabilitation Center Aida Seif el-Dawla.

But, if anything, the flawed media coverage proved that the Interior Ministry was on the defensive this time–a noticeable change from its nonchalant attitude to media reports and its usual inclination to play down events. Now, it seems to be flooding cooperative government-friendly papers with statements.

“The classic reaction you usually get from the Interior Ministry is this: they ignore your claims and they evade responsibility completely. But this time, it’s different,” said Human Rights lawyer and high-profile activist Gamal Eid. “This time, they had to step in to correct a drastic mistake; they did imprison people without charge, holding them since 2004 and are now releasing them in feeble numbers.”

He added: “The about-face is just an effort to retract these mistakes since they have obviously caused them much trouble in Sinai. The violence in Sinai is what forced them to admit to the problem.” Eid believes the whole episode does not represent a permanent change of attitude towards more transparency from the side of authorities or the Interior Ministry, but a “temporary shift in response to exceptional cases that spurred anger and protest and had given them headaches. They wanted to sell their version of the truth, move to a middle ground–because absolute denial didn’t work.”

In short, it’s spin and fear, not transparency, according to media observations and the human rights expert.

Another case in point.

Khaled Saeed, almost a household name after recent mass demonstrations and local and international outrage over his death, was a young Alexandrian man who was allegedly beaten to death by two police constables on a sidewalk in front of an Internet cafe in an ugly scene that deeply shook passersby and eyewitnesses, and whose after-effects reverberated across the nation.

Initially, the Interior Ministry had charged that Saeed was a drug-dealer, then a drug-user who was killed by swallowing a bag of narcotics that got lodged in his throat. But pictures leaked from the morgue, and spread across the Internet and blogosphere by bloggers and activists, showing his bloody, battered face and broken body. An autopsy report backed up the ministry’s claims.

But the cover-up backfired when people protested in Alexandria, Cairo, Port Said, Ismaliya and Kafr el-Sheikh, in addition to other provinces, and when, according to Eid, “both local and international voices started interfering and blowing the whistle on this blatant human rights violation.”

Independent columnist outside Egypt and inside called for justice and refused to put a lid on the case. After the results of the first autopsy, Mona ElTahawy, Egyptian New York Times columnist, wrote that “Egyptian police’s explanation of Khaled Saeed’s death is surreal.” She added, in her usual finger-in-the-eye tone, “A man they beat to death has suddenly become a criminal with prior convictions. A man they beat to death–teeth knocked out, half his lip torn off, black and blue all over–“suffocated” after swallowing a bag of drugs he was trying to hide, they say. And the bruises? No doubt from their attempt to rescue him. We are not stupid. The truth will out.”

And indeed, it eventually did, albeit with difficulty.

The prosecution ordered another autopsy, confirming the first. But more protests ensued. The Interior Ministry, in a first reaction, put on a tough act and refused to be apologetic, insisting that the bruises sustained did not cause death and that police officers beat him up in an attempt to “subdue Khaled” while he was fighting arrest.

The justifications did not hold. Civil journalists drove to Alexandria, independently interviewed eyewitnesses and published their video reports, which contradicted the ministry’s statement. Their reports were picked up by local and international media. “At that time, both civil rights groups and international government were making noise. The European Union and Washington. That caused a change of tone. The Interior Ministry was forced again to deal with this case with a little bit more transparency.”

The result? The public prosecution last Saturday sent the two policemen to court for charges of torture, and arrest without warrant. “But I highly suspect this change is temporary to calm the situation down. I hope I’m wrong,” said el-Dawla.

“They had to charge the policemen. Not their head, who gave the orders, though. It’s calculated, but it’s a half-step towards improvement. And it’s always a result of pressure on the street, in the independent media and by the international community,” added Eid. “It’s the same crime, but now the authorities’ reaction is different–it changed in the course of a few weeks. When cornered, everything was turned around on its head,” said Eid.

But the independent media and civil forces on one side are at loggerheads with the Interior Ministry on the other, according to el-Dawla. “It’s a push and pull thing,” she explained. There’s no transparency or an obligation to divulge the truth from the side of government authorities. “It’s not like you’re dealing with a government. It’s like a negotiation between two strong teams. Whoever is stronger at this round wins.”

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