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In Egypt, Growing Discontent Over Abuses By Police

Egyptian mourners carry the coffin of Mohammed Darbaka, who was allegedly shot dead by a policeman over a payment dispute, during his funeral on Feb. 19 in Cairo.
AFP/Getty Images
Egyptian mourners carry the coffin of Mohammed Darbaka, who was allegedly shot dead by a policeman over a payment dispute, during his funeral on Feb. 19 in Cairo.

In central Cairo, Ali Sayed Ismail Hussein sits on a wooden chair in the street in front of his dead son's apartment building. A recording of the Quran plays in the background as neighbors and friends pass by to pay condolences.

"The blood of my son, Mohammed Darbaka, is on the neck of the president of the republic," Hussein says, speaking of his son, Mohammed Ali, known to most by his nickname, Darbaka. "I am asking for the rights of my son from the president. My demand is justice for my son."

The shooting took place Feb. 18. A policeman had hired Darbaka to drive him around as he moved boxes of shoes and other goods. Hussein says witnesses told him his son and the policeman argued over payment. Then the policeman shot the young man in the head.

Hussein says the cop, who is now in jail, should be executed for killing his son for no reason, in the middle of the street in his own neighborhood. And the case has become a rallying crying far beyond this neighborhood. Thousands marched in the streets during his funeral. Men are getting the phrase "We are all Darbaka" shaved into their hairlines at barbershops.

Under President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, rights groups say cases of police abuse and state repression are on the rise. The El Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violencesays last year, nearly 500 people died in custody or were killed by security forces. More than 600 were tortured in detention, according to a report from the center last month.

These numbers are a rare glimpse into the scale of police abuse in Egypt. And now the Nadeem Center, which has documented cases of torture for more than two decades in Egypt, is itself under attack. The state is trying to shut it down.

Nineteen Egyptian rights groups wrote an open letter protesting the shutdown. They warn that it's part of a broad assault on independent rights groups in Egypt aimed at "silencing all voices critical of its appalling human rights record."

The Darbaka killing comes as discontent grows over police brutality and judicial misconduct. Egyptians were already shocked by the torture and killing of a young Italian Ph.D. student, who'd disappeared in Cairo in late January. Many blame the country's security forces for Giulio Regeni's death, though Egypt denies involvement.

Egypt's security forces are also blamed for a surge of disappearances. And a 4-year-old child was sentencedlast month to life in prison — something the government later said was a "mistake."

Meanwhile, Darbaka's case seems to have rattled the government.

In a protest video posted online, demonstrators chant, "Oh, you dirty government, you sons of dirty people." They call the police "thugs."

On state television, Interior Minister Magdy Abdel Ghaffar was shown meeting with Ali Hussein, Darbaka's father, in what appeared to be an attempt to quell public discontent. Gripping Hussein's shoulders, he said, "He is our son and we will bring justice, that is on us."

Originally, the ministry said the policeman pulled out his gun to stop a fight and accidentally fired. But now, the policeman is behind bars. And the government says he will stand trial.

In a press conference a few days ago, Prime Minister Sherif Ismail promised reforms in how police are trained. "We should not hold the entire police authority accountable for misdeeds of a few individuals," he said.

Back in Darbaka's neighborhood, Ali Hussein looks at a picture of his son hanging on the wall. "He was 24 and engaged to be married," he says, someone who was loved by all. The government, he says, has promised to do the right thing. He will wait and see.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Leila Fadel
Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.