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Anti-brutality protesters in silent display across Egypt

The latest demonstrations over the death of Khalid Said last month show Egyptian society is no longer closing its eyes to police brutality.

Demonstrators wearing black stand on University to in a silent protest of police brutality and the death of Khalid Said in Cairo, Egypt.
Demonstrators wearing black stand on University to in a silent protest of police brutality and the death of Khalid Said in Cairo, Egypt.

CAIRO //Protests against Egypt's security services continued last night more than one month after a young Egyptian man died under disputed circumstances while in police custody. In cities throughout Egypt, silent demonstrators dressed in black and formed extended columns across bridges and waterfronts in quiet protests over the death last month of Khalid Said, a 28-year-old businessman, in the coastal city of Alexandria.

Despite turnouts in the hundreds in Alexandria and Tanta, protests in Cairo were largely shut down by police who told black-clad pedestrians to continue walking or risk arrest. Egyptian human-rights groups often complain about police brutality, but the continued protests reveal a rare sustained outrage over the death of a man many here are calling a martyr. Activists credited some of their recent victories to online social media, which, they said, allowed for innovative new means of political expression that forced the government to at least pay lip service to the anger surrounding Said's death.

Two police officers were arrested last week and charged with brutality and illegal arrest in the case. Their trials begin on July 27. In a move that observers described as a small but significant victory for protesters, Gamal Mubarak, the son of Egypt's ageing president and his likely successor, told Egyptian journalists on Tuesday that "justice must take its course" in Said's case. "It's a sign of growing respect within the authoritarian government for the public attention to torture and human rights violations," said Amr Hamzawy, a senior associate at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

"The cost of torture and human rights violations is growing for the Egyptian government. It's no longer the case that Egypt as a society and public opinion are closing an eye and letting go or that western governments and non-governmental organisations are just commenting once and forgetting about the matter." Said died on June 6 after a confrontation with policemen at an internet cafe. Human rights groups, backed by several eyewitnesses, said plainclothes policemen beat Said to death to prevent him from posting an incriminating video on his blog that shows police officers splitting seized cash and drugs among themselves.

In recent statements to the media, the ministry of interior said two official autopsies support the policemen's claim that Said died from asphyxiation when he choked on a package of hashish he was trying to conceal from the arresting officers. But images posted on the internet, which show Said's battered face and broken jaw, would seem to contradict the government's claims that Said choked to death. Human-rights groups seized on the photos as evidence of an official cover-up.

Yesterday's silent vigils - the third such demonstrations since Said's death - point to a higher level of sophistication on the part of protesters in dealing with riot police. Unlike previous protests, which gathered activists in city squares where columns of police could easily coral and subdue them, the silent protests stretch over hundreds of metres, with activists standing far apart from each other to avoid police containment.

Unusually, the three vigils have all been organised anonymously through the Facebook group "We are all Khalid Said", which now claims nearly 200,000 members. The group's founder and administrator only communicates with supporters and journalists through email, Facebook and Twitter. In online chats this week, the page administrator - who refused to reveal his identity to The National - said his use of social networking had allowed for innovative new methods of protest.

On July 4, Facebook users sent direct messages to the accounts of known police officials, asking them to stop abetting and participating in brutality against Egyptian citizens. The administrator posted screen shots of the conversations with policemen - with their names blotted out - on the "We are all Khalid Said" page. In a number of instances, the officers responded. Some defended torture as a necessary means of law enforcement, whereas others expressed their support for the protesters.

Gamal Mubarak's comments and the arrest of the two policemen, said the administrator, "are a proof that we succeeded" in shaming the government to take real action against police brutality. "At the very beginning police thought 'it's just another case'. That one of them did a mistake and killed someone and they will easily hide it," wrote the anonymous administrator in a Google Mail chat on Thursday. "But thanks to our Facebook group ... [the movement] didn't die."

The success of the anonymously led demonstrations has also attracted activists from among more established opponents of Egypt's government. Mohammed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency and a presidential hopeful, attended the second of the three vigils in Alexandria last month. Members of the Al Ghad Party, the 6th of April Youth Movement and other groups also rallied members to attend the vigils.

Regardless of whether the continued protests end in the kind of justice that satisfies Said's family, the reaction to his death establishes a legacy of successful activism in a country that is well-known for its political apathy, activists say. "This growing public attention, this has never been the case. The police in Alexandria was implicated in the death of Khalid Said. This has been, for a very long time, sort of an average daily experience which Egyptians have known and experienced," said Mr Hamzawy. "It has never become an issue of great and growing public attention."