Torture’s Victory

“If they want us to stop doing our jobs, they need to stop torturing people”: The local and international press reported this week that Egypt’s military regime was closing Nadim, a prominent center in Cairo that treats victims of torture. Nadim was one of the last lights flickering in the sea of darkness that Egypt under Sisi has become; the history of the center’s creation, the nature of its work, and the personalities of its founders all ordained its closure.
Nadim was created 23 years ago by three doctors who have since lived decades of struggle and revelation.

Here, International Boulevard exhumes a 2008 article that graphically describes the pervasive horror of torture in an Egypt that was not even contemplating revolution yet.

Magda Adly is not the type to be easily intimidated. This April 30th, in the courtroom at Kafr al-Dawwar, a small town in the Nile Delta, she pulled out of her purse a pair of torn and bloody shorts, and waved it at the judge. Other articles of clothing in a similarly pitiable state followed. At Magda’s gesture, an incredulous silence fell on the noisy and bustling room. Glances shifted back and forth between the pieces of shredded cloth covered in dried blood and the face of the man who was wearing these pieces of clothing when he was attacked by policemen on the 22nd of April. Ahmad Sobhi, 35 years old, now charged with “assault on police officers,” and awaiting the judge’s ruling on his indictment.

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Magda Adly, director of Nadim. Photo CC: Hossam El Hamalawy.

Magda Adly, doctor and anesthesiologist, activist against torture, explained to the judge: “I examined Ahmad. He had a hemorrhage in his eye and has lost his hearing due to blows from iron rods to his face. After tearing his clothes from his body, the policemen dragged him by his feet, entirely naked, from his neighborhood all the way to the police station, in view of the public. His father and his cousin were subsequently imprisoned as well. The stomach and chest of the father are covered with cigarette burns.”

The officers from the State Security Agency [Amn al-Dawla] present in the room were stupefied at the temerity of this woman who had come all the way from Cairo especially to publicly incriminate them.
And when the session adjourned, Magda Adly was violently attacked. One officer punched her in the head and tore her purse out of her hands; she fell to the floor, knocked unconscious.

In Cairo, the news came as a shock to defenders of civil liberties. Everyone knows Magda Adly, director of the Nadim Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Torture, a fifteen-year-old institution whose credibility and pugnacity compel respect from all sides here.

In her fifties, Adly’s large eyes wear an eternal expression of surprise behind a pair of old-fashioned glasses, her graying hair tied behind her head. She and her colleagues at the Nadim Center have gained respect by never allowing themselves to become encysted in the ‘humanitarian bureaucracy.’

A few weeks after being attacked, Adly is in the sparely furnished apartment she lives in with her mother and her daughter, greeting an unending stream of visitors who are coming by to express their support. Her dislocated shoulder is in a sling, but her gaze still carries that strikingly mixed expression of surprise, both serious and jovial.
“The idea for Nadim came from three of my friends, all of them psychiatrists, who had dealt with patients who had been tortured in the hospitals where they worked,” she says. “They opened Nadim in 1993 and I joined them a few months later. I liked their idea because it joined together two things that have been essential in my life: practicing medicine, and the struggle against dictatorship.”

The idea for the Nadim center was born in 1989, after the repression of striking steelworkers, in which union leadership, activists, and leftist leaders were arrested and ferociously tortured. “It was the first that we as doctors had treated people who had been tortured like this, in which we directly examined the trauma left behind by torture,” says Aida Seif al-Dawla, one of the three psychiatrist-founders of Nadim, along with her friends Suzanne Fayad and Abdallah Mansour.

The offices of Nadim are in a working class part of downtown Cairo, on the second and third floor of a building surrounded by an open-air auto parts market, and not far from the huge and eternally bustling Ramses Avenue. The apartments are spacious, light spills in from large windows, and in the waiting room, there are always two or three people sitting, silent. Often, they are visibly poor.

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Abu Ghraib, detail. Botero.

Nadim today employs seven doctors, of whom six are women, as well as two lawyers and an office manager. In the beginning, the three psychiatrist friends planned to limit themselves to giving therapeutic aid appropriate to people who had been tortured. But they were soon obliged to reconsider their goals. It was impossible in the case of psychological trauma caused by torture to confine themselves to psychological therapy: the very idea of ‘rehabilitation’ seems to require a search for justice and a struggle against impunity.

“Once the fear starts to dissipate, the nightmares stop haunting them, certain patients will tell us: I am doing better now, but I am profoundly sad, my dignity has been damaged,” Adly says. “And over time our work has changed a lot as a result. We have learned a huge amount from these people who we have treated and been involved with.”
And it is for this reason that the work at the medical clinic has been expanded to provide information and legal aid as well as media campaigns, publishing reports and statistics, and accompanying victims to legal proceedings. “For a person who is not the leader of an opposition party, or a human rights activist, for someone who feels like an ordinary citizen to find themselves going to the prosecutor’s office accompanied by 10 or fifteen supporters, that is part of their rehabilitation,” Aida Seif al-Dawla tells me.

A big woman with a robust frame, jet black hair and a frank and thunderous laugh, Seif al-Dawla is an impressive woman. But she seems to carry an impenetrable air of melancholy with her. As she recounts the story of the first few years of Nadim, it is above all the things they had not known, the things she and her friends discovered that comes to her mind. These women, activist doctors long involved in leftist movements, had thought they knew their own country well. Instead they found themselves struck dumb by the ugliness of an ordinary reality that was far worse than anything they had imagined. Opening their center, they expected it would generally take in political activists, but between 1993 and 2000, there were none. “Everyone who came to us, and up to now they are still the majority, were ordinary people who had been tortured for reasons that your logical mind just cannot accept,” Seif al-Dawla says.

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Aida Seif Al Dawla, co-founder of Nadim. Photo CC: Lilian Wagdy.

According to Seif al-Dawla and Adly, the victims are very rarely tortured in order to obtain confessions or information. In Egypt, they say, you might be tortured because you fail to turn over to the village chief the little scrap of earth that you cultivate to feed your family; or because you get in a dispute with someone who has connections in the police, and who sends them over to ‘teach you a lesson’; or because you fail to pay a bribe to corrupt policemen. Citizens who refuse to let themselves be extorted are rare, because they know very well that the result of refusing will be to be tortured. “These days you cannot go into a corner store, a restaurant, or a simple baker who won’t tell you ‘the police station forces me to send them free meals,” says Adly.

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Suzanne Fayyad, co-founder of Nadim. Photo CC: Hossam El Hamalawy.

What you learn from the women of Nadim is that the overwhelming majority of those who are tortured in Egypt have what Seif al-Dawla calls “a common denominator.” They are, she says “all poor; they are people who do not have anyone they can call if they get in trouble, and so they end up at the mercy of the police.” In fifteen years of practice, the cases of middle class people who were tortured have been extremely rare; “you could count them on the fingers of one hand.”

When the center was created, among its planned projects was to draw a map of torture in the country, but after a few months, “we realized that the torture map was a map of Egypt; torture is practiced in all of the police commissariats, the offices of state security agencies, in local police substations; wherever you find them, at the university or on the subway, wherever there is a police presence, there is the possibility of torture,” Seif al-Dawla says.

It is interesting to note that a center like Nadim almost never receives Islamist activists. Whether they are members of the Muslim Brothers, or of armed groups, the Islamits do not come to the center for psychological rehabilitation, even though they are part of the tortured population. For them, Seif al-Dawla says, “torture, imprisonment, suffering; those are part of the contract they have made with God; the very concept of rehabilitation is not appealing to them.”

In spite of the fact that the islamists have in effect excluded themselves from the statistics of Nadim, the number of people who come knocking at the doors rises constantly. Even more shockingly perhaps, a large part of those whom Nadim treats are refugees: Sudanese, Somalis, Eritreans; in other words, people who have already lost everything in their homelands, the poorest among the poor, the least protected segment of the country’s vulnerable.

For Seif al-Dawla, the massive use of torture during the 1990s against the Islamists, and “the complicit silence of civil society that accompanied it” partly explains the huge scale of the phenomenon at present. And things became radically worse following Sept. 11, 2001. After what they call the war on terror began, the idea that the Egyptian government might be embarrassed by these practices in the eyes of western countries became a big lie,” she says. “How are we supposed to understand the position of the American government when they claim they are displeased that people are being tortured in Egypt- when at the same time they are exporting suspects to us in order to be tortured?”

Seif al-Dawla says she could never have imagined in 1993, when she launched Nadim with her friends, that the situation would actually worsen to this degree. Nowadays you certainly do not need to page through the reports of Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch to take the measure of the disaster. You need only to read the news briefs in Egypt’s independent press. The ordinary landscape of horror traversed by the country’s poor is laid out there in all its horror. A week does not go by without some little article about this or that citizen who has been tortured to death. At times the lifeless corpse of the torture victim is just flung out onto the sidewalk in front of the police commissariat in broad daylight in front of passersby.

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Abu Ghraib, detail. Botero.

Against the backdrop of a harsher new economic system, it is as if the repression of political dissent has now become conjoined with an incredible loathing of the poorest people. How to explain then, that the machinery of the police nourishes such a hatred of the poor? How to explain that a few months ago the 12-year-old son of a cleaning woman was tortured to death for having stolen a box of tea?

Daikha Dridi Translated from French by International Boulevard