Make Ramadan torture-free in Egypt

By Osama Diab

It's , but the Egyptian continue to practise brutality and torture. This year, they should set a better example.

19 August 2010

Ramadan is the month during which the Qur'an was first revealed more than 1,400 years ago. Muslims are supposed to wash away their sins during this month because the reward for good deeds at this time is believed to be bigger. People are not only expected to abstain from eating and drinking during daylight, but also from malicious behaviour. Charity is also encouraged. The most visible signs of this in are the mawa'ed ar-rahman (tables of mercy) which are scattered all over the country offering poor people free to break their .

Given the altruistic nature of Ramadan, we can only hope that torture and beating people to death are on the police's list of sins to wash away this month.

One thing is for certain: Egypt's police has a long list of sins for which they need to repent. News of and torture have dominated the pages of independent and opposition news outlets over the past two months. Khaled Said's killing, among other incidents of police brutality, has made Egyptians more furious than ever. Anti-brutality protests took place on an almost daily basis for a few weeks after Said's death. Unsurprisingly, the government responded to its accusers by claiming brazenly that it was just an isolated incident. But its decision to extend the emergency law a few months ago made clear that law enforcement is probably not going to get any less brutal.

These supposedly “isolated” brutal acts have been called “systematic” by human rights organisations. “Torture in Egypt has become epidemic, affecting large numbers of ordinary citizens who find themselves in police custody as suspects or in connection with criminal investigations”, reads a Human Rights Watch report from September 2009.

Despite having such a poor record on , the Egyptian police still feels righteous enough to conduct occasional morality raids. Last Ramadan, I wrote that the Egyptian police took a pious stand by arresting more than 150 people who publicly ate and smoked during fasting hours. I argued back then that the increasing religiosity of , driven by the and Salafi movements, had put pressure on Egypt's relatively secular regime to act more “Islamic”. This time around, a wholesale police campaign has been launched and endorsed by the interior ministry.

Many Muslims, including those in the police, think Ramadan is only about refraining from food, water, smoking and sex, and actually behave in a way that is completely antithetical to the principles of the month. For example, over-indulgence is common during iftar (the meal which breaks the fast), but part of the point of refraining from food is to experience its lack in order to sympathise with the poor. Restraint and self-discipline are the pillars of Ramadan, but many people still completely lose their temper during the hour before iftar when traffic is at its craziest and people are at their hungriest and thirstiest.

This Ramadan, the Ministry of the Interior should give strict orders to its men regarding the ill-treatment of citizens. Rather than giving orders to arrest people for eating and smoking publicly, it should declare Ramadan a torture-free month. In my opinion, it would be more “Ramadanic” to stop torturing people than forcing them to fast. Ramadan's philosophy is about forgiveness and tolerance, not the wielding of absolute authority over citizens who have committed no .

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited's Comment is Free section on 11 August 2010. Read the related discussion. Reprinted here with the author's permission. © Osama Diab. All rights reserved.

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