In January 2014, Muhammad Sharif, a law junior at Helwan University, along with a group of his colleagues took part in a demonstration at Mustapha Mahmud Square, marking the third anniversary of the revolution. When security started breaking up the demonstration, Sharif and his colleagues moved away. They stopped a taxi, but to their surprise the driver took them back to the area where the demonstration was staged and brought them to a checkpoint affiliated with the Ministry of the Interior. “They are staging demonstrations,” said the driver to the officer in charge.
In January 2014, Muhammad Sharif, a law junior at Helwan University, along with a group of his colleagues took part in a demonstration at Mustapha Mahmud Square, marking the third anniversary of the revolution. When security started breaking up the demonstration, Sharif and his colleagues moved away. They stopped a taxi, but to their surprise the driver took them back to the area where the demonstration was staged and brought them to a checkpoint affiliated with the Ministry of the Interior. “They are staging demonstrations,” said the driver to the officer in charge. “This is the third group you brought in today,” replied the officer sarcastically. “Shame on you!” The driver then went back to the group asking for his fare.
The authorities accused Sharif and his colleagues of possessing explosives, being members of a terrorist group and seeking to destroy the state. They were jailed pending investigations for six months, including 45 days in a Central Security camp for violating the laws of their imprisonment. They were tortured before they were finally declared innocent. Sharif believes that the driver only did what he did out of patriotism. “We spent six months in jail only because we looked like rebels,” he says.
In March 2013, the Egyptian Attorney General issued a decision granting ordinary citizens the right to arrest people committing acts of bullying or riots. In late 2013 and early 2014, national security services and the army assigned hotlines and published their numbers on their websites and on TV channels, calling people to report any terrorist activities, (violent acts) of Muslim Brothers, or any social media pages allegedly inciting terrorist attacks, violence or sectarianism, as well as those spreading lies or jeopardizing national security.
The drive, which took place several months after the ousting of former President Mohamed Morsi following the June 30 protest, was similar to a previous campaign organized by the Military Council during 2011-2012 – many of these lines are still active. Later on, the army took over and forcedly dispersed the two sit-ins of Rabia in Cairo and Nahda in Giza, claiming the lives of nearly 1,000 people. In May 2014, former Minister of Defense Abdul Fattah el-Sisi ran for president and won.
New law penalizes non-informants
In August 2015, the new Anti-Terrorism Law No. 94 of 2015 took effect. Article 33 thereof states: “Those who come to know of a potential terrorist crime or preparation thereof or has information or data on any of the perpetrators and has had the opportunity to inform appropriate authorities but failed to do so shall be imprisoned for no less than three months and/or fined L.E. 100,000-300,000.”
This article is used along with Article 37 of the Code of Criminal Procedure to encourage people to inform on others and sometimes arrest and bring them to the police. Article 37 stipulates: “Those who witness a culprit committing a crime or a felony with a punishment of imprisonment may take the same to the nearest authority official without the need for an arrest warrant.”
Sociologist: The army is seen as the country
Dr. Dina Khawaga, a political sociologist and professor of public policy at Cairo University, argues that some people do this to get certain benefits from the regime, while others do it out of a sense of patriotism – they identify themselves with the regime, providing various forms of needed support. Authoritarian states, says Khawaga, preserve themselves by creating and maintaining tension, thus inciting social groups against each other.
Another trend is what she calls the ‘Maspero Syndrome,’ where citizens are mobilised to save the country represented by the regime, via the media. The theory takes its name from the name of the media tower in Cairo, where in October 2011 more than 200 mainly Coptic demonstrators were injured in clashes with security forces. Some media professionals at the time rallied to support the government.
This type of mobilisation occurred previously in European countries during World War II to thwart any attack against the political regime, says Dr Khawaga, since any such an attack was considered to be an attack against the whole country. The country in this case meant the regime and the regime meant the army. This disinformation is presented daily by media and other outlets in Egypt. Consequently, those who express their opinions are a threat not only to the regime but also to the entire country. The benefit people seek is being considered trusted, which means protection because they are deemed friends rather than enemies to the state, argues Khawaga.
Tradition of informing
Reem Saad, a researcher and professor of anthropology at the American University in Cairo, believes that citizens’ complaints against others are an old tradition. The state, she says, is not directly responsible for turning citizens into informers; it is a deep-rooted social attitude driven by a prevailing cultural concept of honest citizens’ responsibility for protecting Egypt.
Khaled Ali, human rights lawyer and former presidential candidate, argues that there are many motives and situations urging citizens to inform against each other. Some, he believes, are motivated by patriotism or an urge to uphold a particular political or ethical attitude. The motive could also be an expression of a certain intellectual tendency, or defense of religious or moral values. Some complaints aim to promote personal fame, while in others the complainant is motivated by another person or a certain official body. According to Ali, the law permits any individual to initiate legal action, but it is up to the prosecution to pursue a trial, and the court decides whether the legal action is worthy of litigation, its jurisdiction and whether or not there is interest or damages.
Study exposes “sytematic informing”
Yara Sultan, a researcher in culture and anthropology, believes that the state’s failure to provide services and formal channels to control people’s interaction with the authorities along with launching campaigns to encourage people to become informers and granting the right to arrest others have promoted “systematic informing.”
Most recently, Sultan has completed her Master’s degree thesis ‘People Nationalism’ at the American University in Cairo. The dissertation is about the forms of different national affiliations and people’s relation with the state and citizenship. The study area is the Ain Essera neighborhood in Cairo.
Sultan examined residents’ daily practices with the authorities’ small representatives, such as police officers, locality official, etc. And she studied their political choices under the Muslim Brotherhood. Sultan found that such interactions were informal and that a police officer became for example one of the area residents. She also found that big families controlling the area were usually an intermediary between residents and the police. Such families would get protection and support from the police as state representatives and in turn protect people and impose their will on them.
Under the Brotherhood too, pro-regime supporters joined the equation through practicing violence. The arrest of people in the Presidential Palace events in December 2012 – in order for them to join the regime’s legitimacy. Nationalism/patriotism, says Khawaga, is a sphere controlled by those in power and with capital. They identify the standards of patriotism and of an ideal citizen. They determine the modes of social conflict and interaction and who belongs to this sphere and who does not.
Father denounces his own son
In some instances, family members have turned against each other. In a letter he wrote while in prison in April 2015 asking why his father informed the authorities on him and caused his arrest, Khaled Abdulhamid, a freshman at the Faculty of Sharia and Law in Al-Azhar University, said: “I have been arrested for two months behind the walls of the pro-coup d’état supporters. I cannot believe or even imagine what my father did. It is a nightmare I have not yet woken up from. I write this letter to you in tears. Therefore, I ask you from my cell to publish as much as you can this hashtag #Why_Father? I hope this letter and this question will be delivered to him. I know the question is difficult for him, but it suffices me that he asks himself. Is it right to give my own son to those criminals and oppressors? What did he do to be jailed? Has he committed any crime? Has he committed any mistake? Has he killed anyone? Too many questions that might be difficult to answer. If he asks himself, he may know his guilt.”
Abdulhamid used to live with his mother, a human rights activist, in the northern Dakahlia Governorate. Abdulhamid’s lawyer Malik Gabili says after June 30, Abdulhamid and his father had a disagreement over their political views. The father then denounced several people to the district attorne as belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood, including his own son.
In February 2015 following several explosions, attacks against the police and setting fire to power stations in the city of Mit Ghamr, two military lawsuits were filed. Abdulhamid was accused in one of them. In July 2015 he was sentenced to three years in prison because he was an adolescent. Others were handed down stronger sentences of between 15 years and life imprisonment.
The indictment says Abdulhamid and others formed a cell in 2014 to set vital institutions on fire and plan assassinations. When the police went to Abdulhamid’s house in February 2015 to arrest him, says Gabili, he was not there. In the next month, Abdulhamid visited his father, but the latter kicked him out and informed the police. Abdulhamid was arrested once he arrived at his mother’s house. The appeal has not yet been decided. Abdulhamid has been in jail for around 14 months.
Dr. Khawaga believes that the frequency of such reports increased in 2013 due to an increase in nationalism: people blame the Muslim Brotherhood for the conflict in Sinai and ISIS. The legitimacy of the regime has become based on protecting people from the Brotherhood, especially since the assuming of power of the army is based on a protection project, rather on social projects. People wishing to join this equation try to prove their loyalty even through delivering or reporting others.
Father and children disappeared for 75 days
Muhammad Essa Sarwi, a human rights lawyer at the Hisham Mubarak Center for Law, says in many such cases there is favoritism or connections with someone in the police or the judiciary. When these cases are pursued, some of them are automatically made criminal. In 2013, Sarwi met a barber whose landlord wanted to evict him. The landlord had connections with the police so he informed them that the barber was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. “We tried to bring witnesses from the neighborhood to prove that he was not a Muslim brother,” says Sarwi. “He however remained in jail for about 45 days before he was finally declared innocent.”
Suad Adulmawla has two sons in high school. In September 2015, her husband Muhammad Abdulgawad was driving the sons to school when he hit another car. The driver was turned to be an officer who threatened that he would “make them disappear.” Indeed, they were arrested and disappeared for 75 days before the two children appeared in the Maadi Police Station and the father in the State Security Prosecution. They were accused of possessing arms and affiliating with a banned group. They are still in jail and their lawyers are unable to get a copy of the case documents.