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Pro-Sisi MP 'beaten by police' as Egypt's power struggle boils over

Members of Egypt's pro-government parliament are beginning to feel the brunt of the police state they have empowered
Police special forces patrol the al-Haram neighbourhood in Cairo's Giza district on 25 January, 2016 (AFP)

A pro-government MP claims she was assaulted by officers in a police station in Egypt in a story that has taken Egyptian social media by storm and exposed the fault lines in the country’s byzantine power struggles.

Zainab Salam, a staunch supporter of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, is a member of Egypt’s House of Representatives from the northern province of Sharqia and secretary of the Parliamentary Committee on Tourism and Civil Aviation.

She went to a police station in Nasr City, a district in eastern Cairo, on Thursday evening in an attempt to free her nephew from police custody when what started as a verbal argument escalated into a physical confrontation.

Sources told Egyptian media that she was shocked to see police officers assault her nephew, prompting her to object to his treatment and threaten to escalate the matter due to their breaking the law. It was at this point, according to the sources, that a police officer physically assaulted her.

In a video posted to YouTube, she is seen arguing with police officers and threatening to end their careers.

At one point, she screams: “I swear it’s my right to take him! I swear to God I will make him come home! He is going to come home!”

At the end of the clip, she faints and drops to the floor – but the video did not show any of the police officers touch her physically.

‘I swear by my hair I’m going to fire you and your officers!’

Security sources told Egyptian media that Salam’s nephew, 15, was in custody for stabbing another young man with a knife, an attack that led to the victim being transferred to a hospital’s intensive care unit in critical condition. The two young men fought each other after Salam’s nephew verbally harassed the victim’s sister and wife with sexual comments. Other Arabic media outlets also cited drug abuse as being a factor in the arrest.

For his part, the accused officer – Ahmed Alaa el-Deen Abdel Aziz – told a local court that Salam had marched in saying she was an MP and could go where she liked and have her demands met.

When he arrived at the scene he was surprised to find a woman screaming loudly and tried to calm her without hurting her, he told the court. Salam then threatened that she could have him fired and grabbed his clothes, ripping one of the buttons on his shirt, saying she would call one of her senior contacts in the Interior Ministry.

He said that Salam tried to forcefully smuggle her nephew out of the station, and when she was prevented from doing so assaulted police officers around her, tore off her hijab and screamed, “I swear by my hair I’m going to fire you and your officers!” The police officer claimed to have recorded the events and said he would present his video to the courts.

In an interview on Friday with Tahrir, an Egyptian newspaper, Salam seemed to backtrack on her original claims: “I have not been injured at all … and after it (the ordeal) I decided to go home to rest, and I am currently with my family at home and among the people of my constituency.”

Lightning rod

Bakr Abu Ghareeb, a parliamentarian from Giza governorate, told Egyptian media: “The police officer is from the Nasr City branch. He severely beat the parliamentarian Zainab Salam during her presence at the station where she asked for her nephew to be freed.”

Salam had sent a message in the early hours of Friday morning saying that she had been assaulted by police officers. The message was sent to a private WhatsApp group used by Egypt’s parliamentarians.

Snapshot of the WhatsApp group: The first message is from Zainab Salam and reads: “SOS from a fellow MP help me from Nasr City police station.” The responses are from fellow MPs asking what is wrong.

After reading the message, Abu Ghareeb left immediately for the police station and was greeted on arrival by Cairo’s security chief and heads of the Nasr City police directorate. They offered their apologies to the members of parliament present who had also arrived after reading the WhatsApp message.

Abu Ghareeb told Egyptian media: “This apology is not enough and if justice for the MP is not obtained, I am going to resign from the House because this is an insult to the entire parliament and a show of disregard by the Interior Ministry towards members of parliament.”

Mostafa Bakry – a well-connected pro-Sisi MP who often finds himself at the centre of Egypt’s political scandals – said that Interior Minister Magdy Abdel Ghaffar suspended the police officer involved in the case and placed him under immediate investigation.

Bakry said that House of Representatives Speaker Ali Abdel Aal, who is currently in Russia visiting the Duma, personally called the Interior Minister and told the minister in no uncertain terms that he would not accept any slight to any member of parliament.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (top-L) listening as Ali Abdel Aal (top-R), speaker of Egypt’s parliament, delivers a speech to the parliament headquarters in Cairo, 23 February, 2016 (AFP PHOTO / HO / EGYPTIAN PRESIDENCY)

The case soon became a lightning rod for Egypt’s political class, who rallied around their fellow MP.

Margaret Azer MP, the deputy chairperson of parliament’s human rights committee, told Egyptian media that an assault on their fellow parliamentarian should be taken as an affront to the entire House of Representatives.

“This MP has parliamentary protection and she was physically assaulted,” Azer said. “So how will this kind of police officer treat ordinary citizens in the context of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s instructions that asked for better treatment of citizens, safeguarding their human rights, maintaining their dignity and treating them humanely?"

Salam was elected to parliament in 2015 on the For the Love of Egypt parliamentary list – which also saw the election of 24 members of the now-dissolved, Mubarak-era National Democratic Party. The staunchly secular and neoliberal Free Egyptians Party is a member of the list and also currently the largest party in parliament.

Alaa Abad, head of the Free Egyptians Party parliamentary bloc, said: “This single incident does not represent the Interior Ministry but is attributable to a number of individuals and trustees who must be prosecuted immediately.”

Blank cheques

This is not the first time Salam has been in hot water. In April, a fellow MP from the same province of Sharqia filed a complaint against Salam to the deputy speaker of the House accusing her of being verbally abusive.

She is also no stranger to controversy. In a telephone interview the same month regarding the country’s controversial protest law, Salam said that “any protestor should be shot with live rounds”.

Salam is an unwavering supporter of Sisi, who came to power following a military coup against Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi.

Last year, for example, she told Egyptian tabloid Youm 7: “I give President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi a blank cheque with my life,” and argued that some laws – such as those on terrorism – should be passed by parliament without debate.

Egypt’s Interior Ministry was the backbone of Mubarak’s security state, who bolstered their influence to balance the country’s powerful military. Following the July 2013 coup, the military have regained their stature as the dominant player in Egypt’s byzantine power pyramid – to the detriment of an increasingly bitter police force that has recently been lashing out at other state institutions.

As if to underline this point, while these dramatic events were unfolding on Friday, MP Hassan Omar claimed that his brother and friends were held in detention for more than five hours by police without cause.

He made his claims in the same WhatsApp group set up by Egypt’s parliamentarians, where he wrote: “They were released and I found traces of electricity (shocks), torture and beatings, and they (police) told him: ‘Let the MP that you brought benefit you.’”

“Is all this because he is a police officer who steps on anybody and knows that he will not be held to account?”

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.