Basma Abdul Aziz: The Ever-Ready Egyptian Rebel

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Abdul Aziz’s thesis was on torture. The issue had always occupied her thoughts. In "Ma Waraa al-Ta’thib" (“Beyond Torture,” Cairo, Merit Press, 2007) Abdul Aziz searched for both the psychological and political characteristics of the “abominable system.” (Photo: Al-Akhbar)

By: Mohammed Shoair

Published Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Basma Abdul Aziz (b.1976) does not get bored nor does she grow tired. She has been struggling against injustice, corruption, religious control, and torture since her university days in the 90s. Her baby face and slim body may not express her strength. But for this psychiatrist, artist, and writer, strength is not physical.

In her book Ighraa al-Sulta al-Mutlaqa (“Temptation of Absolute Authority,” Cairo, Dar Safsafa, 2011) released one day before the January revolution, Abdul Aziz predicted a popular uprising. But she does not seem optimistic after the fall of the dictatorship.

“We have merely changed the names” she says, then adds, “I predict that the working class will start a new revolution.”

When Abdul Aziz enrolled in the faculty of medicine in the 90s, it was controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). She was among the few female students who did not wear the headscarf.

When the MB tried to guide her to the “right path,” Abdul Aziz would respond in her unique manner.

She prepared articles and topics that addressed the hijab and women’s rights and posted them on the college’s bulletin board. Ironically, her articles were torn down by university security rather than MB members.

“Security did not like the presence of a leftist voice that demands equality and human rights on campus. Such an organization can cause confusion for everyone,” she explains.

The “organization” was Abdul Aziz. She single-handedly prepared the material and printed extra copies to hang on the board replacing those that were removed.

She once watched the man who took down her writings. She saw him take them off the wall and leave. Abdul Aziz followed him to the state security headquarters. Fearlessly, she walked in after him and retrieved the articles that he left on a desk.

“We rejected the religious group’s monopoly of the university,” Abdul Aziz says about the MB, “There was no other political alternative, so we began to organize.”

In 2000, Abdul Aziz was one of six people protesting in solidarity with the Palestinian intifada. “We were very few so nobody was able to monitor us,” she says laughing. “Our numbers may have been small, but they were effective.”

After her graduation from the faculty of medicine, her sole desire was to specialize in psychiatry. At the time, students chose this specialty in order to find a job at the university.

Abdul Aziz believed that the world of Freud and Watson was her only refuge, “especially since it is similar to the world of literature and arts.”

State security, who had not yet forgotten her “transgressions” in university, objected to her being accepted to the program. But that did not stop her from demanding her right to a job.

Abdul Aziz filed a lawsuit that lasted for five full years. The case was won a few days before to the outbreak of the revolution.

State security again did not forget her. Several officers had contacted her about the date of her master’s thesis discussion and were in the audience. Shortly after the discussion started, Abdul Aziz says, “there was a sudden power outage. It seems that they did that deliberately.”

It would have been canceled had it not been for human rights activist Ayda Saif al-Dawla who threatened to issue a joint statement with several human rights organizations to condemn what happened. “Seconds later,” the power was back and we continued.

Abdul Aziz’s thesis was on torture. The issue had always occupied her thoughts. In Ma Waraa al-Ta’thib (“Beyond Torture,” Cairo, Merit Press, 2007) Abdul Aziz searched for both the psychological and political characteristics of the “abominable system.”

She worked on the ground with victims of torture and violence. She shares the story of Rabih Suleiman, “an ordinary citizen from one of the villages of al-Fayoum (south of Cairo).”

He was detained by a officer and accused of stealing a cow. The police searched his home and did not find anything. To force him to confess, the officer set fire to Suleiman using kerosene.

After assuming Suleiman had died, the policeman dumped him in front of al-Fayoum Hospital. However, “Rabih did not pass away instantly but succumbed to his wounds a few days later.”

When Abdul Aziz saw the photos of Suleiman being tortured, she decided that defending victims of torture would be her primary cause.

Recalling other stories, she remembers political activist Michael Nabil, who was detained by the military government. The authorities insisted on transferring him to a psychiatric hospital.

Abdul Aziz issued a statement condemning “the transfer of political activists and pundits to psychiatric hospitals under the pretext of assessing their mental health.”

Following this statement, a doctor ordered that Nabil be transferred to administrative interrogation at the ministry of health. Hundreds of doctors and civilians stood by Abdul Aziz, forcing the ministry to cancel the interrogation.

Her book Ighraa al-Sulta al-Mutlaqa is based on the solid foundations she established while facing injustice, tyranny, and maltreatment.

The book follows the turbulent road of the relation between the police and ordinary people. Abdul Aziz researched the history of security agencies and monitored their torture of Egyptians since the Pharaohs.

After being rejected by several publishing houses, Safsafa Press agreed to print it. When the copies arrived on the eve of the January revolution, Abdul Aziz was certain that she would be rearrested.

In the last pages of the book, the young doctor predicted the eruption of a revolution in Egypt but she was “surprised that it happened so quickly.” The following day, when Tahrir Square was packed, copies of the book were being distributed among the crowds of angry Egyptians.

Today, Abdul Aziz does not seem optimistic. She does not like any of the events that have followed the fall of Hosni Mubarak.

She predicts there will be a new revolution and that it will be carried out by the working class. “If this class actually revolts, there will be a real and radical change. But if the workers do not make the new revolution…God help us.”

This wish is one of many. Some are filled with humor. “I wish the day would last for 40 hours. Twenty-four hours are not enough for me to complete all my activities,” Abdul Aziz jokes as she lists the fields and arts in which she works.

“In addition to my primary work as a doctor, I write novels, paint, make sculptures, take pictures, play the piano, and I am active in defending human rights,” she adds.

Due to her hunger to learn everything and her acknowledged role in defending people’s rights, she became known as “the rebel.”

She approves of this title and says she learned to be a rebel from her grandmother who also “played the piano and knew a lot about colors [and art], in addition to her fluency in French and Italian.”

Abdul Aziz’s grandmother introduced her to the world of arts. She taught her to play the piano and explained the meanings and effects of colors in art before she departed and left her in a “patriarchal society.”

“That tragedy affected me for a long time. My grandmother died, leaving rebellion against patriarchy in me,” says Abdul Aziz.

“I began to write at a later age,” she says, before sharing the names of her favorite authors. “I love Sonallah Ibrahim’s experimental form and Muhammad Mustajab’s language. As for Yusuf Idris, I cannot but describe him as a teacher.”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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