Issam Atallah: The New Khaled Said?
Published Sunday, October 30, 2011
Yasmine lets out a moan and rocks sideways while sitting on a wooden chair in the middle of a dirt road in one of Cairo’s poor neighborhoods. The body of her brother, Issam Atallah, may come out of the morgue's gates facing her any minute now.
“Issam: my phone won't ring again,” she says as she grabs her black headcover and her eyes swell with tears. “I won't hear your voice asking about my latest anymore."
Yasmine's voice grows louder. On a nearby chair sits her weeping mother. Facing them, inside the morgue's front yard, activists, including those from the April 6 Movement, gather. They are also waiting to pick up the body of the 24-year-old Atallah, believed to be the first case of death from torture during the reign of Egypt's military council SCAF that took over after Mubarak's ouster last February. Several activists say Atallah is the post-revolution's Khaled Said, in reference to the young man who was tortured to death by Egyptian police in 2010 and became an icon of the revolution.
Accounts of what really happened are hard to confirm. But family members and activists at the scene have little doubt Atallah was the victim of abuse by Egypt's new rulers. A young shoeshine man living in Cairo's Basateen area, Atallah was seemingly arrested on February 25 for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. His family says he was a bystander during a brawl that broke out in the Muqattam area of Cairo on that day. He was accused of illegal apartment squatting and sentenced by a military court to two years in prison.
Seven months into his sentence, his parents received a call from the authorities. This was last Thursday. Their son, they were told, was admitted to a hospital and eventually died. The common story circulating among relatives and sympathizers is that hoses were inserted into Atallah's mouth and anus and water mixed with soap was pumped into his body. This was either punishment for Atallah’s alleged smuggling or swallowing of a phone SIM card, or for drug dealing while in prison.
Member of the El Nadim Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, Aida Seif el-Dawla, says that a physician, a lawyer, and herself were not allowed access to the body until after the pathology examination had been concluded. Once she was allowed access, she found out that “the examination of the body was conducted in a place not fit to be a kitchen."
Mona Seif, spokesperson for the organization No to Military Trials of Civilians, says SCAF continues to engage in abusive practices with the number of people appearing before military courts following the outbreak of the revolution reaching an estimated 10,000 people. Seif also says political dissent is not the only cause of such abuse. “People with close ties to the military police are now using their privileged position to settle personal scores, which makes people from humble social backgrounds like Issam the most vulnerable.”
Yasmine, Issam Atallah's sister during the funeral (Photo: Maggie Osama)
The young men and women gathered outside the morgue seem painfully aware of what the military council could stand for. A victim of unfettered power and possibly bad luck, Atallah has now become a martyr of the revolution. The youth grow increasingly impatient as they await the release of Atallah’s body. Some start questioning the logic of sticking to peaceful means of protest.
"Libya is the solution,” one activists cries out. Another warns SCAF head Tantawi that bloodletting will only be avenged with bloodletting.
After heated chants and occasional pounding of the morgue’s metal doors, the body of Atallah emerges in a dark-wooden coffin. Someone grabs an Egyptian flag and waves it near the coffin. The youth carry the coffin on their shoulders ready to fulfill the wishes of Atallah's mom, that his body be passed through Tahrir Square.
Moving through Cairo’s crowded streets, the coffin carriers are squeezed by incoming cars. On both sides of the street, vendors, pedestrians, homeless poor, and coffee shop patrons stare at the procession with curiosity but little enthusiasm. Finally, the procession enters Tahrir square via Qasr al-Aini street. There, as is the case most Fridays, a few thousand protesters greet the incoming march. Soon, Atallah's body is lying in the nearby mosque of Omar Makram. The body then turns into the symbol of a different cause. The Imam leading prayers addresses the seething crowd. “We are willing to sacrifice a million martyrs until Egypt is ruled by Islamic Law."