ALEXANDRIA, Egypt — The photographs have spread online and in the press: a before-and-after montage showing a handsome young man smiling in a gray hoodie on one side and a battered and bloodied corpse on the other. His eyes are rolled back in his head, mouth agape and his lower lip ripped half off his face.
His name was Khaled Said, age 28. His murder on June 6 — allegedly at the hands of undercover police — is causing a political uproar that has brought thousands into the streets here in recent weeks to demand justice for the man now known as “the emergency law martyr.”
His death is Egypt’s latest — and largest — rallying cry for critics of 82-year-old President Hosni Mubarak, the country’s feared security services and the state of emergency that has granted both near limitless power since 1981.
Mubarak had promised to repeal the law in 2005, but nevertheless it remains on the books. On June 1, parliament extended the law for two more years, but government officials promised to limit its use to cases of suspected terrorism and drug trafficking.
Large protests, everything from raucous rallies to silent vigils, have consumed Alexandria for the last two weeks. The largest came Friday when an estimated 2,000 people rallied after noon prayer at a mosque near Khaled’s home. That evening, hundreds more gathered on the city’s beachfront — dressed in black and clutching Qurans and Bibles as they faced the sea — to hold a silent, hour-long vigil for victims of torture and police brutality.
Both demonstrations drew the kind of crowd that is rarely seen at anti-government protests in Egypt. Made-up young women waved the black flags of an opposition group called the April 6 Youth Movement. The elderly chanted in the shade of nearby trees. Families dressed their young children in their best outfits to defy lines of black-clad riot police. At the sunset vigil, several protesters had tears in their eyes.
Former U.N. nuclear chief Mohamed ElBaradei, Egypt’s most prominent opposition figure and a Nobel Peace Prize winner, appeared at both rallies. They were his first anti-government demonstrations since returning to Egypt in February after retiring from his position as head of the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Association. He was a sedate presence, neither giving a speech nor participating in chants of “Down with Hosni Mubarak!”
But protesters did not seem to mind. When he emerged from the mosque after prayers, the crowd erupted in cheers.
ElBaradei said he felt compelled to join the demonstration because police brutality “is a humanitarian issue, not a political issue.”
“This is part of the reform process. We need a system of transparency and accountability,” he said at Friday’s sunset vigil, standing in a black blazer on the Alexandria seafront.
“The Egyptian people are sick and tired of these practices and heinous crimes, rich and poor, old and young,” he added. “If the regime does not get the message then there is a problem with the regime. The writing is on the wall.”
Eyewitnesses said Said was beaten to death on the street in full view of neighbors and passersby by undercover police officers. They said the officers followed Said into an Internet cafe down the street from his family home in Alexandria’s Cleopatra neighborhood.
Hassan Masbah, 62, the owner of the cafe, said the attack that began in his store is one of the worst things he has ever seen.
“Khaled came into the door of the shop and a minute later these two man came in and grabbed him,” he said. “They didn’t say a single word.”
Masbah heard a commotion near the entrance. When he looked over he saw one of the men grab Said by his hair and the other take him by the belt. Both attackers were wearing street clothes and one had a handgun affixed to his waist — a telltale sign of a mokhber, or undercover cop. Masbah said they smashed Said’s head onto a marble countertop and dragged him out onto the sidewalk.
Haitham Masbah, the owner’s son, followed the three men into the street. He said he watched as they dragged Said into a stairwell two doors down from the shop, where they smashed his head multiple times into the building’s rusted wrought-iron door. When he collapsed, Masbah said they began to kick and beat him.
“Khaled screamed ‘Stop, I am going to die!” the younger Masbah said. “And they said, ‘Either way you’re dead!’”
No clear motive for the murder has emerged. Family members and activists say Said obtained a video of cops divvying up the spoils of a drug bust. They believe the attack was meant to keep him from going public with it. Others suggest the police may have been trying to extort money from Said, whose brother Ahmed is a U.S. citizen and was seen as one of Cleopatra’s wealthier men.
The entire attack took less than 15 minutes. When it was over a police car arrived and the attackers threw Said’s body into the back “like a bag of garbage,” Hassan Masbah said. A few minutes later they returned and dumped his body back on the sidewalk.
The government denies these eyewitness accounts. It claims Said was a drug dealer who asphyxiated after swallowing a bag of marijuana as he resisted arrest. Two autopsies have been performed — and rejected by rights groups — supporting this official version of events.
Officials at Egypt’s Interior Ministry argue that his injuries were not the cause of death and only happened because he resisted arrest. State-run newspapers have been lending the regime’s story a hand as well: Al Gomhoreyya, one of Egypt’s largest daily newspapers, has repeatedly denounced Said as a drug addict and called him “the marijuana murder victim.”
But no one in Cleopatra believes the government’s version of events. Said’s brother Ahmed described the official version as an “insult to my intelligence.”
After Friday’s demonstration, Said’s mother Leila Marzouq received visitors dressed for a wake to their home down the block from where her son died. She said she has found a measure of peace in the protests sparked by her loss.
“I’m so happy that all these people are standing by my side,” she said. “It is as if God sent them to me to tell me that each one of them is my son Khaled, which shows that God is on our side and against the oppressors.”