Black Lives Matter protests in US spark mixed reactions in Egypt

Protests in the United States have drawn mixed reactions in Egypt, with government supporters and the media portraying them as anarchy and pro-democracy activists eyeing them with nostalgia and a sense of deja vu.

al-monitor People hold up a Black Lives Matter banner as they march during a demonstration against racial inequality in the aftermath of the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd, in Washington, U.S., June 14, 2020.  Photo by REUTERS/Erin Scott.

Jun 15, 2020

June 6 marked the 10th anniversary of the death in police custody of Khaled Said, a young activist who was beaten to death by policemen outside an internet cafe in Alexandria for posting a video showing police officers dividing the spoils from a drug bust.

Images of Said's battered face went viral after they were published on the Facebook page We are all Khaled Said, created by Egyptian activists to bring attention to police brutality and other human rights abuses under Hosni Mubarak's regime. The haunting images provoked outrage among Egyptian social media users, fueling discontent that some months later would escalate into a full-scale mass uprising, forcing Mubarak to step down.

The two policemen responsible for Said's death were convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 10 years in prison in a 2014 retrial that followed their appeal of an earlier seven-year sentence they were handed down in October 2011.

This year, the anniversary of Said's death passed without incident, save for a few online memorials published by some activists nostalgic for the brief period in 2011 during and immediately following the uprising when they had believed that democratic change was possible. Their hopes for a freer, more just society have since been dashed, thanks to a restrictive environment that since mid-2013 has seen the arrests and detentions of thousands of opposition figures and government critics, including many of the liberal activists who participated in the 2011 anti-government protests.

Journalists have also been targeted in what some rights groups like Amnesty International have described as an unprecedented crackdown on press freedom.

But the ongoing Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests against racism and police brutality that is reverberating across the globe and which, ironically, coincided with the anniversary of Said's death, have revived memories of the 2011 uprising, rekindling some of the activists' lost hopes for justice and equality in Egypt.

"Ten years ago today, Khaled Said was murdered in my hometown of Alexandria. It was a shocking case of police brutality that rocked Egypt," recalled one Twitter user, who added, "From the Nile to Minneapolis and back … may we all one day reach Tahrir." Tahrir in Arabic means "liberation," but it is also the name of the iconic square in downtown Cairo that was the epicenter of Egypt's mass protests calling for Bread, Freedom and Social Justice.

The anti-racism movement sparked by the killing in police custody of George Floyd, who was arrested over alleged forgery, has evoked mixed reactions in Egypt. Rather than highlight the demands of peaceful protesters for an end to racism and police brutality, Egypt's pro-government media has devoted its coverage almost entirely to the Donald Trump administration's heavy-handed approach to the protests.

"It is a pathetic attempt by the media to 'normalize' police excesses," Rasha El-Ibiary, assistant professor of political communication at Future University, told Al-Monitor. But the media narrative may also be intended as a warning to Egyptians: If police in the United States — a country that takes pride in upholding its democratic ideals — was using such repressive measures, just imagine what the Egyptian government's response would be if protests were to erupt in Egypt, a country ruled by a president whom Trump has described as his "favorite dictator."

TV talk show host Ahmed Moussa has gone a step further, pointing the finger at the "terrorist Muslim Brotherhood" that has been outlawed in Egypt since late 2013, alleging they were exploiting the protests to further their interests. "The United States has given the Muslim Brotherhood a safe haven; anywhere the terrorists go, there is chaos and anarchy," Moussa said in an episode of his show on the Sada El Balad channel.

Egyptian government supporters have largely turned a blind eye to the BLM protests, but some have tried to portray them as anarchic by sharing videos and Fox News accounts of violence, looting and vandalism.

Meanwhile, activists who took part in the Egyptian Revolution are watching the developments in the United States in awe and with a sense of deja vu, with some drawing parallels between the BLM protests and their own uprising.

Mona Seif, an activist who founded the No to Military Trials Campaign in the weeks after the 2011 uprising and whose brother Alaa Abdel Fattah remains imprisoned for his activism, told Al-Monitor, "The courageous defiance of unarmed civilians, protesters losing their eyes, the arrests, and the sense of global hope and solidarity that are pushing people forward remind us of a serious issue that connects us all: police brutality."

Bemused by the striking similarities between the ongoing US protests and their own uprising, some activists shared images and videos of the BLM protestors being tear-gassed, charred police cars and journalists being arrested while reporting from protest sites.

An image of a lone protester standing defiantly before rows of baton-wielding riot police was widely circulated — with a sarcastic caption that read "From America's Mohmed Mahmoud Street" — in reference to the street in downtown Cairo that was the scene of bloody clashes between protesters and security forces on January 28, 2011, otherwise known as the Friday of Rage.

Other social media users like Ramy Raoof, an Amnesty International researcher on privacy and digital safety, expressed solidarity with the anti-racism protestors, sharing tips on digital safety during protests.

A decade after the killing of Said, the relationship between the Egyptian public and the police remains uneasy and lacks trust. "This is largely due to the hundreds of cases of forced disappearances, in prisons and extrajudicial killingsdocumented by rights groups since mid-July 2013," said Seif.

Seeking to restore public confidence in an institution that for decades has perceived itself as being above the law, the Interior Ministry has reinstated public order with a marked increase in police patrols, and a number of officers have faced trial for abusing the power of their badges. But while police accountability for rights abuses is a far cry from the Mubarak days, the sentences handed down to convicted police officers have often fallen short of the justice hoped for by victims' families. Attempts to reform the police have also included incorporating female officers in special units created to combat sexual harassment.

The mainstream media has, meanwhile, painstakingly sought to polish the image of the police with in-depth coverage of their "heroic" role alongside the military in the ongoing Sinai war on terrorism and interviews with widows of martyred police officers.

It is telling perhaps that Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has warned citizens against criticizing the police and the army, arguing that such criticism is "tantamount to treason.”

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