Egypt: The Face That Launched A Revolution

The death of Khaled Said, and the internet, may help topple a regime.

January 25, 2011, 1:58 PM

Feb. 4, 2011 — -- For many Egyptians, this week's attacks on demonstrators, journalists and human rights lawyers come as no surprise. Egypt is notorious for its brutal police and intelligence services.

In fact, the fate of one victim who died at the hands of Egypt's police has served as a rallying call for the Egyptians who took to the streets demanding change.

Last June, 28-year-old Khaled Said of Alexandria posted a video online that seemed to show police officers and drug dealers working together.

"Now it's time for a vacation," one of them says in the video.

The police were outraged when the video was posted, and Said paid the price.

As reported on one of Egypt's most widely watched news programs, Said was dragged out of an internet cafe by two policemen and beaten, in front of witnesses including a store owner and young children.

The owner of the internet cafe described to reporters how the men had beaten Said to death in a doorway across the street, smashing his head against stairs, a wall and an iron door.

A young boy, who said he saw the incident, told reporters, "They kept hitting him and he objected and asked, 'Why am I getting beat?"

"They kill people though they haven't done anything," another girl who was interviewed said, referring to the Egyptian police.

After taking him away, the officers returned minutes later and dumped Said's lifeless body in front of the internet café. The police later claimed Said had suffocated to death when he tried to swallow a bag of hashish.

Photos of Said's contorted face, showing a fractured skull, broken nose and dislocated jaw, went viral on the internet.

'We Are All Khaled Said'

Outrage over the June 6 incident sparked the creation of a huge Facebook group called We Are All Khaled Said, with more than 40,000 on-line supporters. It was that web site which first called for Egyptians to gather in protest on a day of anger on January 25 -- a date chosen because it is officially celebrated as "National Police Day" in Egypt.

When protestors gathered in the streets on January 25 in Alexandria, Said's photo was carried aloft in posters and banners. Egyptians across the country have not stopped protesting since.

Sarah Leah Whitson, director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch, believes Said's death might have been "the final straw" for Egyptians.

"You know it's hard to explain why one thing ends up being the tipping point, why one case really sort of touches the hearts of millions as Khaled Said's case did in Alexandria," said Whitson. "But the fact that there were video images really galvanized the sense in Egypt among Egyptians that they had had enough."

Said's family told ABC News it was too dangerous for them to speak out now because of police stationed near their home, but his mother has posted on-line videos to protest the long delay in prosecuting the two police officers charged with her son's murder.Social media and on-line videos have played a huge role in publicizing alleged police abuses in Egypt in recent years.

"Egypt is well known internationally as one of the countries who has perfected the art of torture," said Adel Iskander, an Egyptian-Canadian media scholar and a lecturer at Georgetown University. Videos of Said and other victims of brutality , said Iskander, have "shown both the police brutality and to some extent the judicial complicity behind this system of torture that's going on in Egypt."

In perhaps the most infamous case prior to Khaled Said, Cairo bus driver Imad Kabir was sodomized by police, who taped it all, and then sent the video to his coworkers as a warning.

Kabir's crime? He said he was trying to break up a fight between his brother and a police officer. Thanks to the video, and to Kabir's testimony in open court, the police officers were prosecuted and convicted for sodomizing Kabir, and sentenced to three years of hard labor.

Kabir's abuse was publicized online by blogger Wael Abbas, who since 2005 has been well-known in Egypt for collecting videos of alleged police abuse and posting them on his YouTube channel and his blog, Other videos among the many posted by Abbas appear to show beatings by police, a man with a bare, bloody back begging for mercy in a police station, and a female murder suspect hanging upside down and moaning. Abbas told ABC News earlier this week that during the protests he has been concerned for his safety and worried about reprisals.

"The number of videos that have been posted on line over the past few years that really scandalize this issue of police brutality is remarkable," said Iskander. "And the reaction has been absolute outrage. Human rights organizations have called on Egypt to restrain its police force and its torture of citizens. In fact, some argue that this very revolution may have begun precisely to try to prevent police brutality.

Omar Suleiman: Torturer-in-Chief?

For many, Egypt's torturer–in-chief is the country's new vice-president Omar Suleiman. Until last week, the 74-year-old Suleiman, a veteran of the Mubarak regime, was the head of the country's intelligence service, the Mukhabarat.

Said Whitson, "What we know about Omar Suleiman is that he has a long history of involvement, of course, in the intelligence agency of the country, and a long record of involvement in torture and abuse of detainees."

Suleiman is also closely tied to the U.S., considered a great help in the interrogation of terror suspects sent to Egypt by the CIA under a so-called "rendition" program that began in the 1990s.

"It was a symbiotic relationship," explained Emile Nakhleh, a former top Middle East analyst for the CIA. "We benefitted from it, they benefitted from it. But all along our senior policy makers kept telling them that they need to institute real reform very quietly but consistently and they never listened."

Some of the secret US cables made public by Wikileaks show American officials were fully aware of the problem.

"Omar Suleiman and the interior minister keep the domestic beasts at bay and Mubarak is not one to lose sleep over their tactics," wrote one American diplomat in Cairo 2009.

"I would say his hands are deep on the torture system," said Whitson, "beyond fingerprints."

For Egyptians, the hands of Suleiman and Mubarakhave left permanent scars. The scars will be forever visible in online videos, whether of a bus driver who didn't show the desired respect to the police, or a young man who sought to expose police corruption, but would not live to see the power of what he started.

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