Abuse and torture inside Egyptian police detention centers are all too familiar. Last year, for example, 11 members of a family were taken in for questioning about a murder; the men were allegedly hung by their legs and given electric shocks while the women say they were urinated on, beaten, and had their clothes torn off as police officers took turns lying on top of them, simulating rape.
Such abuses were long resistant to cries from local and international human-rights activists. In 1989, psychiatrist Aida Seif El Dawla decided the situation had to change. She and a few colleagues began documenting the violations, and found the problem was bigger than suspected. "We discovered that torture victims were not only political detainees this was just the tip of the iceberg," says Seif El Dawla, 49, a tall, dark-haired woman with a determined look and a reputation for speaking truth to power. In 1993, she co-founded El Nadim center in Cairo for the psychological rehabilitation of victims of violence the first of its kind in the Arab world. Since it opened, 1,300 Egyptians and 2,000 Sudanese illegal refugees have come to the center for help.
She grew up in a politically active family, seeing her father arrested twice for mild opposition to President Anwar Sadat. "My father's prison sentence brought the issues right inside my home," she recalls. Throughout her college years in the 1970s she was an active member in the Egyptian student movement.
She has never stopped protesting. In 1999 she went on a hunger strike for a week in protest against the nongovernmental organization (NGO) law adopted by the Egyptian parliament, which greatly restricted the activities of NGOs and human-rights organizations. At the start of the Iraq war, she led a demonstration demanding that the Egyptian Prosecutor General provide medical care for the antiwar protesters beaten by police officers. "Police in Egypt is a power that has gone loose and turned into a monster," she says.
And thanks to her, the world is noticing. In November 2003, Human Rights Watch gave her its highest honor. Uncomfortable with such accolades, she donated the award to El Nadim. Seif El Dawla says she must cast her net wider. "I realize that civil activism alone cannot change the world. Civil action has to be politicized," she explains. Her next goal? Regime change in Egypt. It's not likely to make her any friends in high places, but she's used to that. By Amany Radwan/Cairo