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Death of a Facebook Activist

by Mike Giglio
Death of a Facebook Activist

Khaled Desouki—AFP

Did Morsi’s government cover up a political murder?

[dropcap]M[/dropcap]ohamed El-Gendy, a popular activist, was last seen alive at around 2:30 a.m. on Jan. 28, when he said goodnight to a journalist friend near Cairo’s Tahrir Square and headed home. When Gendy didn’t show up at a planned march the next day, his cellphone switched off, his friends grew alarmed—especially because he had recently received threatening texts, telling him to stop his activism.

Gendy, 30, was an organizer with the opposition movement the Popular Current and a multilingual tourism guide. He liked arranging for food at sit-ins, and was beloved by friends, who remember him as a kind, generous man. When Ihab Ghobashy, a close friend, lost his job, Gendy discreetly paid his rent.

Ghobashy looked all over Cairo for his friend, searching police stations and hospitals without luck. The only trace of Gendy he found was at the Red Mountain police camp on the city’s outskirts. A training facility for riot police, it housed detainees during Hosni Mubarak’s reign. While not an official prison, during the days of unrest surrounding Gendy’s disappearance, it swelled with political prisoners again.

Demonstrators, to honor the two-year anniversary of the revolution against Mubarak, were massing to protest President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, accusing the government of overreach. At the same time, three cities in the Suez burst into unrest, leading Morsi to declare a state of emergency. Speaking of “counterrevolution,” Morsi warned on Jan. 27: “If I see that the homeland and its children are in danger, I will be forced to do more than that.”

Three days later, Ghobashy and a few friends approached the camp with a photo of Gendy, which they showed to a handful of teenage boys who had just been released. The boys, Ghobashy and his friends say, recognized the photo and said Gendy was still inside the camp, badly beaten. The next day, Gendy’s friends staged a protest demanding his release.

Ghobashy was at the Popular Current offices in Cairo when he heard that Gendy had been found at Helal Hospital. Rushing there, he found Gendy in a coma. He had a brain hemorrhage, fractured ribs, and a badly battered face. Within the week, Gendy was dead.

Ghobashy and his friends say they had already searched for Gendy at Helal in the first few days after he disappeared. But according to the hospital, Gendy was there all along—admitted in the early hours of Jan. 28, the victim of a hit-and-run. As proof, the hospital provided a patient entry log, which was obtained by Newsweek. On it, Gendy’s national ID number is listed alongside the entry for a 16-year-old boy, also named Mohamed, but with a different family name.

Certain that hospital officials were covering up police abuse, opposition activists began to draw parallels between Gendy and Khaled Said, the Alexandria man whom police beat to death in 2010, sparking the revolution. Soon, Gendy’s bespectacled likeness appeared in graffiti portraits on walls around Cairo.

Police abuse defined the Mubarak era. Defending itself against charges of excessive force, Morsi’s government claims such methods are a holdover from the past—and the Interior Ministry is resistant to change.

Gendy’s death, however, has been hard to explain away amid mounting public pressure. Before the release of the autopsy report, Morsi’s justice minister said that Gendy had indeed been killed in a hit-and-run incident, leading activists to suspect a cover-up reaching into the government. When the autopsy report was released days later, sticking to the hit-and-run verdict, they saw it as part of the lie—in 2010, authorities had likewise issued a contested medical report claiming that Said had choked to death on a bag of marijuana.

In the ensuing uproar, Egypt’s prosecutor-general ordered another medical review, which a panel of three doctors completed earlier this month. “We rule out the possibility” of a hit-and-run, the report says. Gendy likely died “by being beaten violently.” Doctors leave the door open for investigators to determine “if the death was a result of torture or not.”

Gendy’s friends believe he was targeted for his anti-Morsi activism, citing the recent threats against him.

At the time of Gendy’s disappearance, Amn al-Markazy camps around Cairo were rife with prisoner abuse, according to Maha Youssef, the legal director at El Nadeem Center, an Egyptian NGO that works with victims of torture and violence. Red Mountain held about 200 prisoners, most of them younger than 18. Citing accounts from released detainees, Youssef says that uniformed police and men in civilian clothes regularly beat prisoners using fists, boots, sticks, the butts of guns, and occasionally electric prods. They also interrogated prisoners with questions about their opposition to Morsi: “‘Who is paying you? Are you a follower of [opposition leaders] Mohamed ElBaradei or Hamdeen Sabahi? Answer! Answer!’”

Most of the prisoners were rounded up in protests, but Gendy’s friends believe he was targeted for his anti-Morsi activism, citing the recent threats against him. One of his last tweets called Morsi a “dog,” railing against his “full allegiance” with the Interior Ministry.

“Mr. Morsi and his people the Brotherhood have canceled justice in Egypt,” says Salah Gaber, whose 18-year-old son, an honor student known as Gika, was killed by police. In November, Gika was facing down riot police when, according to two witnesses cited in a police report, one officer put on a black mask before firing directly at Gika with a long-barreled black gun. “I suddenly found blood spurting in large volumes from his chest, neck, and right arm,” one witness said in the report, which was obtained by Newsweek. Gika had administered a Facebook page called Together against the Brotherhood. Days earlier, the young administrator of a popular Facebook page called Brotherhood Liars was killed in similar circumstances.

Unconfirmed kidnapping accounts have also surfaced with increasing regularity—part of what Mohamed Zidan, an investigative journalist with the newspaper Al Watan, sees as a campaign against “secondary level” activists who are more vulnerable than their better-known counterparts. Eslam Mahmoud, 17, says he was kidnapped and threatened by “the police in cooperation with the Brotherhood, because they have a common interest.”

Gehad el-Haddad, a senior official and spokesman with the Muslim Brotherhood, says the government is alarmed at such reports of police abuse, but that reform of the security forces will take time. “You have a police force that is … 100 percent trained to be a bashing machine,” he says. “To shift the balance is something that’s going to take years.”

Haddad says many in the Interior Ministry remain suspicious of the Brotherhood, a group suppressed by the Egyptian government until the revolution. Indeed, he says, the security forces’ abuse may be a way for them to undermine Morsi: if such “rogue actors” continue their “bashing,” anger will eventually be directed at the government.

But the opposition claims the Brotherhood has been cooperating with police in some cases of abuse, citing the December clashes outside the presidential palace in which, according to news reports and human-rights groups, Morsi supporters detained, beat, and interrogated protesters while police stood idly by. Ola Shahba, a prominent activist who was detained, says she saw Morsi supporters assault male prisoners as the police looked on.

Haddad says that there’s no evidence the detainees were beaten or that the Brotherhood was involved.

But Gendy’s legal team is trying to tie the Brotherhood to a similar allegation. Sherif al-Behairy, a former supporter of the Brotherhood’s political party, claims that members of the group brought him to the Red Mountain camp in late January to find “bad guys [who] took money to destroy the ruling system.” Once there, they beat and interrogated prisoners. One of the prisoners he saw at the camp, he says, was Gendy—though police had already battered him so badly, he was left alone. In an interview with Newsweek, Behairy said that when he realized the detainees weren’t thugs but young activists, “I woke up.”

The Brotherhood has dismissed Behairy as a liar, and one anonymous text on his phone has even threatened him with a jail sentence for giving false testimony. And aside from Behairy, no one has said they saw Gendy at Red Mountain.

Officials, meanwhile, are standing their ground, though the justice minister—in an embarrassing turn—recently claimed that he only stood by the contested hit-and-run report initially because the interior minister asked him to.

Alaa al-Asas, the doctor who conducted Gendy’s autopsy and wrote the initial report, says he is convinced Gendy was killed in a traffic accident and expects a recently commissioned third report to prove him correct. He says activists are projecting their revolutionary hopes onto Gendy—“They want a symbol, and when Khaled Said was a symbol, they succeeded,” he says—but have picked the wrong case. “I see many cases of [police] torture. This is not a strange thing,” Asas says. “We proved this many times.”

Additional reporting by Maged Atef. From our April 5, 2013, issue; Death of a Facebook Activist.

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