CAIRO – The video outraged Egyptians, showing riot police strip and beat a middle-aged man and drag him across the pavement as they cracked down on protesters. The follow-up was even more startling: In his first comments afterward, the man insisted the police were just trying to help him.
Hamada Saber’s account, which he has since acknowledged was false, has raised accusations that police intimidated or bribed him in a clumsy attempt to cover up the incident, which was captured by Associated Press footage widely shown on Egyptian TV.
“He was terrified. He was scared to speak,” Saber’s son Ahmed told the AP on Monday. Saber recanted his story on Sunday after his family pushed him to tell the truth and acknowledge that the police beat him.
The incident has fueled an outcry that security forces, notorious for corruption, torture and abuse under former President Hosni Mubarak, have not changed in the nearly two years since his ouster. Activists now accuse Mubarak’s Islamist successor, Mohammed Morsi, of cultivating the same culture of abuse as police crack down on his opponents.
The outcry was further heightened Monday by the apparent torture-death of an activist, who colleagues say was taken by police from a Tahrir Square protest on Jan. 27 and held at a Cairo security base known as Red Mountain. Mohammed el-Gindy’s body showed marks of electrical shocks on his tongue, wire marks around his neck, smashed ribs, a broken skull and a brain hemorrhage, according to a medical report.
Blatant abuses by security forces under Mubarak were one factor that fueled the 2011 revolt against his rule. The highly public nature of the new cases put new pressure on Morsi, who hails from the Muslim Brotherhood, which was long repressed by security forces, to hold security officials responsible for any abuses.
Egypt’s presidency said it was following up on el-Gindy’s death, adding that there will be “no return to violations of citizens’ rights.”
The Interior Ministry denied that el-Gindy was ever held by police. Morsi met with top police officials Monday, but the state newspaper Al-Ahram said the talks did not touch on the beating of Saber or el-Gindy’s death. The paper said Morsi told officers he understood they operate under “extreme pressure” in the face of protests and that he would work for a political resolution to ease unrest.
Morsi’s prime minister, Hesham Kandil, admonished the opposition and media not to raise a public outcry against security officials. “This should not be used as a match to set fire to the nation … to demolish the police,” he said.
Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim warned that if the police “collapse,” Egypt will become “a militia state like some neighboring nations.”
In the case of el-Gindy, the activist who died Monday, fellow activists say he disappeared during a Jan. 27 Tahrir protest and they later learned from people who left the Red Mountain security camp that he was being held there. Soon after, el-Gindy was brought to a hospital in a coma and died Monday.
After his burial in his hometown of Tanta in the Nile Delta on Monday, angry mourners marched on police headquarters and clashes erupted, with protesters throwing firebombs and stones and police firing back tear gas.