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The Dignity of Hamada Saber

[Hamada Saber beaten up by police forces on 1 February 2013. Photo from ElFagr.org] [Hamada Saber beaten up by police forces on 1 February 2013. Photo from ElFagr.org]

Depictions of bruised and battered bodies have had an enormous influence upon the waves of protest Egypt has witnessed since the initial stirrings of the January 25 Revolution – from the graphic post-mortem photograph of Khaled Said to images of what is widely known as the “blue bra incident.” However, I suspect few Egyptians would question the particular force of the brutality depicted in a video shot in front of the Ittihadiyya Palace on the evening of 1 February, even as compared to the infamous scenes just mentioned. In an incident that was broadcast live to Egyptians on Al-Hayat television, and then rebroadcast to an international audience on CNN, a man is beaten, stripped naked, and dragged through the street by Egyptian police.

Beyond the degree of brutality depicted in the video, what sets this latest scene apart is how much Egyptians have come to know not only about the background to the incident, but indeed, about the incident’s denouement – specifically, how the Egyptian police sought to contain the impact of the video, and how these measures ultimately caused still further violence to the victim and his family.

Through extensive coverage on the leading talk shows of the Egyptian private television networks – among them, Orbit’s “Al-Qahira al-Yawm” and Dream’s “Al-Ashira Masa’an” – viewers have come to learn that the victim of the attack was Hamada Saber Ali, a fifty-year-old resident of the Cairo neighborhood of Matariya. So great was the demand for information about the victim of the attack that the television channel ONTV managed to reach Hamada’s wife, Fathiya, by telephone only a matter of hours after the incident.

In the midst of the interview, broadcast live, suspicions immediately emerged that Fathiya was under pressure to repeat a police narrative of the assault. That Hamada found himself in the care of a police hospital only intensified concerns about whether Hamada or his family could speak without coercion about what had happened to him in front of the palace. Such concerns were substantiated when Hamada, plainly contrary to the video record of the incident, suggested that protesters rather than the police were responsible for assaulting him.

The disconnect between Hamada’s testimony and the facts of the assault became jarringly clear when one of the victim’s daughters, Randa, an eyewitness to the incident, contradicted her father’s testimony in a series of media interviews the day after the assault, insisting that the police were responsible. In doubtless one of the most bizarre encounters that has appeared on Egyptian television in recent memory, Hamada directly accused his daughter of misleading the public in the midst of Orbit’s talk show “Al-Qahira al-Yawm.”

Bizarre certainly, but heartbreaking too, because here was a family fracturing live before the eyes of the nation – fracturing as a direct result of police coercion. Not only had the police broken the body of Hamada Saber, but they were breaking his family apart as well.

Once Hamada was transferred from a police hospital to a government hospital, his testimony came to match that of his daughter Randa. Although there remain determined attempts to impugn Hamada’s character, with the front page of the Freedom and Justice Party newspaper accusing him of carrying eighteen fire bombs, what comes across most powerfully in the coverage of this man and his family is an extraordinary dignity.

Indeed, despite the dangers her father clearly faced in what amounted to police custody, Randa Hamada Saber insisted on the accountability of the police for her father’s assault. This confidence, this dignity derived not from material comfort – her family lives in a single room, and shares a bathroom and kitchen with two separate families – but from a profoundly held sense of what is just and what is not.

While Hamada doubtless still faces intimidation from the police, he faces ridicule from those who accuse him of cowardice. The former is of course repugnant, but the latter I find almost doubly so. The high and mighty who find fault with Hamada have not lived in his shoes. The January 25 Revolution, the “dignity revolution,” was for Hamada, after all. That he should have lied under police coercion, after suffering so brutal an attack, is testimony only to the revolution’s shortcomings – not Hamada’s.

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