Picture by Karim Mostafa
Funded in 1993 in Cairo, El Nadeem Centre was one of the first NGOs in the Middle East to provide treatment to victims of political violence and torture. Since the revolution in Egypt, the centre’s staff has never been busier: victims of torture pour into their quiet downtown office for psychological, social and legal counselling. More than 12,000 civilians are said to have faced unfair trials in Egypt since February 2011, many of them after having been randomly arrested and ill-treated while in detention. Mashallah News met with psychiatrist Dr Mona Hamed at El Nadeem Centre to discuss the nature of the psychological trauma engendered by such political violence.
Last time we came to interview you at the centre, you were busy taking care of a new emergency. A young man had just died under police custody. How often does this kind of emergency occur?
It’s hard to say, of course. It changes every week, but on average, three times a week or so.
When the revolution occurred, did you expect your job at the centre to change radically?
We had this fantasy for, say, a few hours. But victims of torture poured in again, just a few days after January 25. Today, we keep talking about the day when we won’t have torture patients anymore — but right now, our hands are still busy.
Did you have more patients during the revolution and the following transition period than before? How did your daily work change since then?
We’ve been overwhelmed by cases. We continue to receive patients individually as we did before, but since the revolution, we also started to receive groups of people. Last year, there was more political violence each month and more stories of arrests, killings and torture. The security forces would evacuate sit-ins, and the days after, we would have many more patients. Every month we hold a collective gathering to discuss those issues as a group, with patients and staff. But what really changed is that people now have the courage to come to us with their testimonies. They insist on it, they know how important it is that the public knows about these stories.
What kind of political violence are your patients dealing with?
Street battles, imprisonment, sexual assaults… and sometimes in one case, all of those.
Would you say there are symptoms specific to the revolution, such as depression following the loss of ideals, the end of utopia?
I don’t think the biggest symptom is depression. The most common one is anger. People can’t believe the violence keeps happening despite of all the struggles they’ve been through. Many patients say that they used to have dreams of social and political change, dreams for their future. But the security system is still here, and they feel powerless.
Have the patients you treat been directly involved in the revolution as activists on the ground, or do you have patients who have been arrested randomly, without being involved in any sort of political struggle?
We see both cases. Sometimes, people have been arrested while taking care of an injured, or while giving food or water to revolutionaries. These are punished for doing something generous and human, although it has nothing to do with politics. And some people were just passing by.
Would you say that the trauma is deeper for someone who’s been arrested randomly than for a revolutionary with a political purpose in mind, even though they ultimately face the same kind of political violence?
Yes, definitely. I remember one case that a lawyer told us about. A man had been arrested randomly and beaten all over his body during his stay at the police station. In court, when he heard the list of charges he was accused of — attacking the army, the police, degrading buildings, and so on — he collapsed, in a state of shock. He started shouting that he never did such a thing. He was mad.
So of course — even if the humiliation and the pain is the same for both — when you are an activist, and you go on the ground knowing that all of this can happen to you, you are, in a way, prepared. You have the tools to empower yourself, and even to empower others. I heard the story of an activist who — even though he was badly wounded — after having been beaten up by the police started to chant from the bottom of his cell; that way helping others to feel human again, despite all of the humiliations they had been through.
How long does it take for the first trauma symptoms to appear?
Activists who are victims of trauma usually follow the same pattern. First, they come to the centre to report their story and share their testimonies, and they look strong. They say they’re fine, that they did their duty, and that it made them happy to do so. Then later on, after a few months, they come back because they experience feelings of depression, nightmares, anxiety, frustration and so on.
Trauma is a triangle between the personality of the person, the nature of the violence experienced and the current surroundings of the person. In the case of activists, a new event always triggers the symptoms linked to the initial trauma. For example, during the presidential elections, a lot of people came back to us with new symptoms. The frustration linked to the political process had built up and triggered their hidden feelings of trauma. It was very surprising.
You work in collaboration with lawyers to build cases. What are the results so far when facing the current justice system?
(She laughs). Do you want me to start crying? It’s been a very frustrating process until now. We worked on building cases for the trials of Mubarak and Adly who were accused of murder of demonstrators. But we also work on individual trials for demonstrators who have been arrested and have to face military courts.
Would you agree that a revolution is a collective moment of madness? Suddenly people are outside of themselves, they share a utopia, they’re committed… and then suddenly everything is back to normal.
Who’s back to normal, I ask you? (She laughs) I don’t see that anyone is back to normal at all. People have changed. Everyone is changed. Everyone is talking about political issues. People want to share, and whether they’re pro this or against that, they’re interested! I remember very well that before the revolution, the only thing that mobilised people was football. Now, people follow talk shows on TV, they know when the elections will be held, when there are upcoming trial sessions.
It’s not just political. Everyone has a different attitude towards public issues in general — whether it’s breaking the traffic lights, parking in the middle of the street or putting their trash everywhere. People have stopped thinking in a fatalist and selfish way. They don’t say “This is not my problem” anymore, they feel responsible for themselves. That’s a very different attitude. Including the people who are against the revolution: they’ve changed despite their position, they’re not silent anymore.
In the future, do you see it possible to eradicate torture?
The only hope I have lays with people, in their change of attitude. So far, I don’t trust any government, any party or political organisation. It’s not a question of awareness: of course people know about torture, everyone knows about torture in this country. The illiterate and the poor know more about it than I do. But we need to shift from “Torture is bad” to “Torture should be stopped and we will stop it ourselves.”