Khaled Said, 28, died on June 6 in Alexandria, Egypt. Witnesses and rights groups say that two policemen dragged him out of an Internet cafe and beat him to death. Said was apparently targeted because he intended to post a video that allegedly showed police offers dividing the spoils of a drug bust. Official autopsies said he choked on a plastic roll of drugs, but a cellphone picture of Said’s battered face challenged the government’s assertions. Weeks of protests and newspaper headlines followed. In early July, authorities decided to charge two police officers with illegal arrest, torture, and excessive force (not murder); their trial will begin in a few months.
Said's death at the hands of police gave new momentum to calls for political change in Egypt. Protest movements are notoriously hard to organize in Egypt, where an emergency law has been in effect since 1981. The emergency law grants police and security forces discretionary power to arrest and detain anyone without charge and bans mass assemblies. "Under the state of emergency, the power of security forces has become absolute. It has become a hegemonic force in the country, even judicially," says Bahey Eddin Hassan, general director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. "Without a real balance of power, you do not have the rule of law and judicial independence. Without real balance, you lose the voice of the people."
How are organizers mobilizing supporters, coordinating silent stands, and generating awareness about their cause?
There is a main website - with Arabic and English versions - called "We are all Khaled Said" that shares news updates, logistical information for protests, and links to videos of gatherings.
YouTube videos have been an important tool used to share images of police brutality, as well as participants in the silent stands. The group has a dedicated YouTube channel and many supporters have uploaded videos of the various protests held around Egypt. A video was even made by a rap group about Khaled Said.
"We are all Khaled Said" also started a Twitter campaign using the hashtag #khaledsaid on July 22. The aim of the campaign was to raise awareness worldwide about torture in Egypt and the police's treatment of Egyptians. While the hashtag did not become a trending topic, organizers reported that the received over 10,000 visits on the group webpage on a single day. You can follow the group at http://twitter.com/elshaheeed.
How have demonstrators gathered in a country that prohibits such gatherings?
Demonstrations known as "silent stands" have been held around the country - and in other parts of the world - to express public anger over Said's death. Some are joining demonstrations out of a sense of shock over the death; others are coming to protest police brutality and overall political situation in Egypt. To circumvent the ban on public gatherings, participants stand 5 meters apart from one another. So far, there have been four major silent stands organized by "We are all Khaled Said":
June 14 - The first silent stand was held in Cairo and Alexandria. The video below shows images and videos collected from this first protest, with participants wearing black and standing apart.
June 25 - Over 4,000 Egyptians participated in Cairo alone, including Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the UN nuclear watchdog.
July 9 - Participants again wore black and gathered around Egypt to participate in the Third Silent Stand.
July 23 - A "Khaled for Vendetta" video was made to raise awareness ahead of the fourth stand and to invite people to participate. The date July 23 holds significance, as its the anniversay of the nonviolent Egyptian white revolution that took place in 1952 when the Egyptian army toppled the King of Egypt. Organizers referred to this stand as "The Black Silent Revolution." A video posted by the group shows what was happening on the ground.
August 20 - A fifth silent stand was organized, and individuals participated not only in Egypt, but around the world. This date was also the 10th of Ramadan. Many gathered on the street in front of the home of Khaled Said's family. On the We Are All Khaled Said Facebook page, you can see photos from the stands, including photos of the police attacking silent protesters.
Thousands have peacefully taken part in the silent stands. Police have attacked participants in some instances. Media attention around these stands has generated a lot of international interest in what is happening on the ground in Egypt.
What protest leaders, rights activists, and experts are saying:
“This has become an emblematic case,” said Hossam Bahgat, who heads the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. “It is a breakthrough in the fight against torture. The fact that he was not a political activist, or a criminal but someone who belongs to the demographic majority of young people has made many youths identify with him.”
"Under the state of emergency, the power of security forces has become absolute. It has become a hegemonic force in the country, even judicially," said Bahey Eddin Hassan, general director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. "Without a real balance of power, you do not have the rule of law and judicial independence. Without real balance, you lose the voice of the people."
Amnesty International wrote on the Huffington Post: "The wild card here is the Egyptian judiciary. The government has spent the past decade or so attempting to bring the nominally independent judiciary under its will, often bypassing it for a system of special and extraordinary courts. But there have been times when the civilian judiciary, sensitive at such moments to public need, rises up and states its independence. It's hard to expect after decades of seeing claims of torture and brutality go without punishment, matters would change in the death of Khaled Said. But the trial bears watching, and if activists and the public have their way, the case will mark a blow against the structure of impunity that has muzzled Egyptian civil society for so long."
U.S. State Dept. Assistant Secretary Philip J. Crowley said in a speech:"Turning to the Middle East, the United States is concerned about the death of Khaled Mohammed Said at the hands of Egyptian security forces in Alexandria on June 6th. We have been in touch with the Egyptian Government on this matter. We welcome the Government’s announcement of a full investigation and we urge that it be done transparently and in a manner consistent with the serious allegations that have been made. The Government of Egypt last week supported a UN Human Rights Council universal periodic review recommendation that it investigate police abuse allegations effectively and independently to prosecute offenders. We believe this case is an opportunity to immediately demonstrate this commitment. We urge the Egyptian authorities to hold accountable whoever is responsible. The United States believes that all individuals should be allowed to exercise freely the human rights and fundamental freedoms enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This belief is central to our values system and to our foreign policy."