In the shadow of military rule: The revolution for Cairo’s Children

By: Alia Mossallam

Although the burning of the police stations offered a certain kind of closure to the children of Cairo’s streets, and the possibility of a safer life with less abuse and violence, the military’s struggle for power, has brought indiscriminate injustice to children and civilians alike. This report highlights the abuse and violations faced by children since the start of the revolution, and the hope that still remains in the possibility of dismantling a police-state. Cairo’s children are creative, highly intelligent and politically conscious; the revolution has provided an opportunity for us to better understand children of our streets. Thus their participation in a collective and popular, youth-inspired revolution, holds hope not only for them, but a society that can finally learn from its youth.

I.                   Children of the streets…

“Huwwa el share’ beygeeb welaad?” Nora, 16 years old[1]
“Tell me, do streets bear children? Do they?”

In an interview with a girl who lived on the street in 2008, she asked that she not be referred to as a street child. “Afterall…” she asked with scorn “do streets bear children? Where did you get this term from then?”[2].
Hers was a significant questioning of the name given to street children, and whereas the English term, ‘children on/of the streets’ may work better, a term that appeased all stakeholders involved with the issue was less easy to coin. As was a commonly agreed upon definition.

 The National Council for Childhood and Motherhood (NCCM) and other government institutions preferred ‘atfal bela ma’wa’ : children without a shelter. But the truth is most of Egypt’s street children do indeed have homes and families, but they are either families who encourage them to spend more time on the street for income, or drive them to it through physical and often sexual abuse.

 The widest definition in Egypt, is that they are children under the age of 18 who spend all or most of the time on the streets. According to a study by the population council in 2008, 65% of children are driven to the street by the situation at home, whilst 23% are forced to leave the house by their parents.[3]

Street children in Egypt are mainly offered protection services by street-children NGOs (mainly in Cairo and Alexandria), as well as the Ministry of Social Solidarity under the shelters of the institutions of defense. The highest government body concerned with children’s issues has been the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood.

A long battle was waged by civil society organizations, supported by UNICEF and eventually sponsored by NCCM to amend the child law to protect children of the streets rather than incriminate them.

The child law of 1996 was amended in 2008 to reflect that street children were;
-          Children at risk, rather than “children vulnerable to delinquency”[4]
-          That street children can be criminalized (as juveniles) from the age of 12, rather than seven
-          That children born to a single mother, can be issued a birth certificate in her name alone
-          That minors are to be segregated from adults in detention centers[5] (criminal penalties are to be imposed for officials who jail children with adults)
-          That child protection committees be established in governorates to monitor and support children at risk

Although the law was passed, legislations were not developed to ensure it was implemented. As a result children still faced the highest level of abuses inside police stations[6] and children are still detained with criminals of the highest offenses. Most of all however, was not that children were not protected by apparatus of the Ministry of interior, rather that they are constantly threatened and abused by them. Children are constantly subject to arrest campaigns, used for entrapments, and threatened with imprisonment if they did not do favors for corrupt police-men[7].  Furthermore the law entitling women to record children’s birth certificates in their own name was never enforced, thus incriminating both the women who have the children out of wedlock, and having the children born without formal identification. Causing further problems in their entitlements to health services and complicating the possibilities of their re-integration into society.

Aside from the abuse and maltreatment by the ministry or interior however, the children’s main concern and complaint, was not being heard. In a world of NGOs, National councils, state and corrective institutions, and a battle over laws and legislations; the children lived in a world of people who knew what was best for them, and little time to respond to what they saw best for themselves.

Although various service are offered by NGOs through street work, reception centers and shelters, the NGO’s main battle is to constantly protect the children form state apparatus, and protect themselves from the risk of closure. Even NCCM’s support has tended to be politically conditional. Whereas studies indicate that the number of children vary from hundreds of thousands to millions, NCCM insists on keeping it at a conservative ‘thousands’. This is metaphoric, both for the lack of accurate data on sensitive issues in Egypt, as well as NCCM’s conditional commitment to the children’s issues.

The research in this report is based on interviews with officials and children in 7 NGOs in Cairo; Banaty for girls, Egyptian Association for societal consolidation, Al Ma’wa, Hope Village Society, CARITAS, Bustan El Tefl and FACE. As well as lawyers from the EAFCC (Al mu’assasa al masreyya lel nohud be’awda’ al tofula), and various other human rights organizations part of the front for the protection of Egyptian protestors. It also draws upon interviews performed with 90 children in March of 2011 in an attempt to assess their experience throughout the revolution in a report for Human Rights watch.
II.                The revolution for the children

“Henna kannu bey3ala2una men regleyna…”Selim, 13 years old
“This is where they used to hang us from our feet…”  

1.                  Taking part in the revolution

Children were quite consciously active during the revolution and to be found in most places where the action took place. Though many accusations were raised against the children for participating in the ‘burning of the police stations’, most of them only participated after the stations were already burning. Sayed, a 15 year old explained that “People watch movies and imagine that street children are thugs with little to fear. But let me tell you this, for every one of us whose heart is made of stone, there are 100s who do nothing better than hide.” Sayed participated in burning of a police station in Haram, but he believes the burning started from the inside.[8]

A group of boys in Monib on the other hand, entered the police station in Boulaq after it was burnt down. They worked on bringing the fragile ceiling, the very one they were hung with ropes from, to the ground. Selim, 13 years old remembered; “You looked up at the ceiling and the ropes and remember everything that happened to you there; and then BOOM you see the ceilings with the ropes fall to the ground… it’s the most beautiful thing about this revolution…that we may never hang by these ropes again”[9]

Many accusations were also leveled against the children for joining thugs and attacking protestors during the revolution. But although children were injured by clashes, they were wise in the sides they chose. “You see…” 13 year old Ahmed Abdallah, explained to me, “there are two kinds of  shaa’b. There is the shaa’b that push the carts of foul, and sell corn, that you see around you everyday, and there is the shaa’b who work very closely with the government and the president and his people. But the first kind of shaa’b, that’s the real shaa’b that we’re part of. And that’s the shaa’b that will protect us”[10]

2.                  Expectations – ‘Teslam edeyn el thawra’ – God bless the revolution! Salem, 14

The children had many expectations of the revolution, based on my interviews with them in March of 2011. These included;
-          That the police treatment would differ – and this was the case for the first few months
-          That the streets would become a less dangerous place with less abuse by police and investigative police (civilian dressed)
-          That they would ‘finally’ be put in friendly shelters and sent to school
-          And that they would readily receive services in public hospitals
-          But mostly, that the stigma towards them may lessen.

This however, was barely the case.

3.                  Dangers

The dangers the children were exposed to during the first few weeks of the revolution were mainly on account of the lack of operating protecting mechanisms and institutions. Few children were injured during the clashes, but more were injured upon arrests by the army. On account of the lack of operating NGOs, the fact that the help-line (16000) was not operating, and state institutions closed down, few institutions watched out for the children and the levels of risk were higher.

 III.             Since the revolution

“El share’ ba’a gashe’…tamma’…mesh zay el awel..” Dunya, 16 years old
“The streets have become creul…greedy…worse than before”

1.                  Arrests and detentions

 Arrests of children, started with that of civilians, starting with the rolling in of the military tanks by the end of January. What was unfamiliar about the process was the fact that children were transferred to military prisons and thus more difficult to find. Many children under 16 were arrested for not carrying a national ID (issued at 16 years of age), or for breaking curfew, and few were transferred to military courts.

The court proceedings are swift, often take place without the presence of a lawyer, and are difficult to appeal. At times, making it even difficult to trace the children’s whereabouts.

With time however the situation worsened as more and more serious accusations were leveled against children arrested during political clashes, whether they were in the events or in the surrounding areas, these started with breaking the curfew and petty theft and developed into;

-             Congregating (an offence under the emergency law)
-             Carrying Molotov cocktails or ‘white’ weapons
-             Inciting Violence
-             Burning of public property

In most of these cases the children were framed. The events started with the army’s indiscriminate heavy handedness violating the rights of children and adults alike, and developed further as the ministry of interior returned to its barracks in the summer. Systematic arrests and abuse by the ministry of interior are now procedural, along with the military. Furthermore, since November onwards, a campaign to defame the children has started, using them as scapegoats for political clashes. In December, for instance, children were made to appear on TV and confess that they had been paid by activists to raise havoc in Tahrir. This in itself is an offence and violation of the child law. Both in using the children for political purposes and defaming them.

Below are the highlights, of arrests month by month, since the start of the revolution. These numbers were difficult to ascertain, especially during the first few months, where lawyers, were at best reacting to arrests, with little time to document. More so however I focus on the stories of children who were kidnapped by military police, state security soldiers or police; beaten, abused and returned to the streets. These cases are rarely documented except when the children go to the NGOs for help or support. Thus even when estimates for arrests and kidnapping exist, they are highly conservative. And every child that is released of jail, tells the tale of at least a handful others imprisoned with him or her.

In February, 2011 , a number of children were arrested for breaking the curfew, or not carrying a national ID (even though they were under 16 years – the age upon which one is issued).

Of these was 15 year old Mohammed Gaber, a well built, mentally challenged young man, on his way home to Alexandria on the 30th of January. Mohammed was blind-folded and hand-cuffed, his phone taken away from him and placed under disciplinary detention for a week in the 6th of October military prison. There he was beaten and electrocuted for a week on end. “They hit me everywhere” he described “I still have marks where they whipped and kicked me hard on my sides”[11]. Mohammed was then moved to the Borg el Arab prison in Alexandria, and due to the fact that Mohammed is mentally challenged, he was not able to explain his situation, nor offered the possibility to make any phone-calls. Finally Mohammed managed to give his father’s number to family visiting a fellow inmate, and after spending a month in prison was set free.

Three sisters, Zainab, Sanaa and Amira, on the other hand escaped their home in Aswan, Sanaa (17) suffered a nervous break down from the extent of her father and brothers’ beating, and came to Cairo on the 28th of January. They were arrested by the military police in the station, and detained for a few days, before being let go. They were arrested again a few days later, and after two weeks of arrests and release, the girls were finally transferred to a street children NGO.

Mostafa: Youngest detainee is innocent From

On the 9th of March, and during the first military crackdwn on Tahrir, 13 year old Mostafa Gamal El Din[12], was arrested and received a military trial, for which he was sentenced to one year. He was released three weeks later. Mohammed Abdelhady, 16 yars old, was sentenced to three years in Tora prison, and after much pressure and campaigning, his sentence was reduced and suspended, and he was released on the 21st of May, two months later.

On the 15th of May, during protests in front of the Israeli Embassy events in memory of Nakba; 150 protestors arrested, 17 of whom were under 18 years of age. They children were let out three days later, with suspended one-year sentences.[13]

On the 9th of September, during protests in front of the Isreali Embassy, demanding justice for the three Egyptian soldiers shot by Israeli soldiers,  38 protestors were arrested, including 5 children under 18 years or age, and on the 10th, 87 were arrested, 8 of them under age. All were released on the first of November, with one year suspended sentences.[14]

On the 30th of September in protests before the ministry of defense, 12 protestors were arrested, includeing one 15 year old. He was tried, pronounced innocent and released on the 13th of November.[15]

On the 9th of October, during the events known as the Maspiro Massacre; 28 peaceful protestors were arrested, three of which were under 18. All were released on the 23rd of November, but their cases continue in court.[16]

11 and 12 year-old handcuffed. Picture by lawyer, Malek Adly.

In the events during the period of 16th – 20th of December known as the ‘Ministerial cabinet’ events, 76 children[17] were arrested and detained. Two of these were children under 12 years of age.

It is during these events that the violations against the children were noted to be highest. Arrested girls (around 15 years of age) were threatened with virginity tests, and children were beaten, tortured and threatened by police. Many of the children arrested were not even within the realms of the ministerial cabinet, sit-in.

 Besides the 76 children arrested and detained and documented by lawyers, many children were kidnapped and let go eventually, which makes them invisible to all records of violations. These are a few examples;

16 year old Yousri Salem, enrolled in an NGO shelter, and not one interested in protests, was walking to Saad Zaghloul metro station when he was kidnapped by civilian-clothed police in a microbus. He was taken to a building near parliament, and beaten and whipped for hours, breaking one of his ribs[18]. He was eventually released unto the streets.

Yousri Salem, 16.  Broken rib, and injured due to whips, beating and electrocution

Aly Abdelmaguid, 15[19], was standing with an old man, near the events, when they were both attacked by military police. The old man was let go, but even when he claimed Aly was with him, the police shouted back “Let this be a lesson, not to bring your children to the square”, Aly was taken to the parliament building where several others were detained, made to stand in a long row and beaten extensively. “Every now and then they would bring us water…I would take my time drinking hoping to keep them off me for the longest time possible. I was always terribly afraid of falling. We all saw what happened when someone fell whilst being beaten – they would almost be whipped to death!”

Dunya El Sayed, 15 years old[20] was also arrested during these events, whilst selling tea in Tahrir. She was taken with the two girls she was with, detained in a building near the cabinet, and beaten extensively for hours, before they were taken to Abdin station. There she was detained for 12 days, before she could call her lawyers. “It’s not that they didn’t give me a chance to make the phone calls, but all the beating and electrifying tasers, made me forget mama Hind (social worker)’s number…mama hind whose number I’ve known for four years…imagine?”

 In February of 2012, and a year after the start of the revolution, the violations against the children achieved new records. 63 children were arrested during these events, approximately 60% of which were street children. Children arrested in this case were detained in state security camps (mu’askar amn markazy) in Tora, making it difficult for lawyers and human rights practitioners to find them. Children were beaten excessively upon capture (one child complained of four hours of beating whilst another was beaten naked on the bathroom floor), and one was arrested with rubber bullet wounds. However they were denied medical attention for up to four days of their arrest. Lawyers suspect they were kept in state security camps until their wounds healed so a case could not filed against their captors.

The children were also presented before three general prosecutors including Abdin, El Wayly, and El Sayeda Zainab, making it difficult for lawyers to be present. Lawyer Ahmed Meselhy[21] quotes a child who said he was threatened with detention should he not go out and return by the end of the day with a package of cigarettes and 100 pounds.

To date, 52 of the children were released, but nine children remain detained. All nine are school-children. The arrests as of late have been indiscriminate to street children and school children and adults and minors alike. The arrests of the street children however are being blown up to use them for the wide-spread arrests of children, as ‘thugs’ were used to justify the arrests and violations of the rights of protestors.

 Finally, during the events in Portsaid on the 2nd of February, 25 children were arrested. Eight have been released, but 17 are still detained. These children are once again detained in state security camps , making it difficult to find them or assess their health. They are also presented before the prosecutors’ offices in Ismaeleyya, Suez and Mansoura.

In cases as of November onwards, the children are being used as scape-goats, to turn public opinion against the revolution – making it seem like ‘violence’ is incited by children, as it was made to look incited by thugs, and drain the situation of political purpose. The percentage of children arrested grows in each incident.


2.                  Military trials

The exact number of children exposed to military trials is yet to be identified, due to the swift nature of the trials in the absence of a lawyer, as well as the difficulty in documentation in the beginning of the revolution. Since the beginning of the revolution, and until the events of December however, children were systematically transferred to military courts and military prosecutors.

At the moment, the pending case known to the ‘No to military trials campaign’ is that of Islam Hassan, 17 years old, arrested in March of 2011 and sentenced to seven years in prison for theft.

3.                  Lack of security and NGO work

 The work of NGOs, now the only active and effective institutions working with children has become difficult as of late, because of the security situation. This has meant :

-                      A heightened level of suspicion of street children in the streets, makes the streets even more hostile to children (they are sometimes arrested by shop-keepers and handed over to the military) as well as to street (social) workers who visit the children at night
-                      Mobile units which make rounds during the night have also been met with hostility and one group was arrested in November[22], and warned against operating on the streets with kids without clearing from the ministry of interior (which is difficult to obtain).

-                      An issue which has become exacerbated as of late is the influence of older youth over younger ones. These young ‘leaders’ seem to be manipulated by the ministry of interior as of late, which makes them comfortable in their abuse of the children, knowing they will be protected.

-                      Consequentially, NGOs who strive to protect the children, feel threatened by the older youth, especially NGOs who work with girls, and protect them from abuse.


IV.             Revolutionary hopes

Although the level of abuse, arrest, incarceration and torture has increased since the revolution for the children, the revolution has very much, been a revolution for the children as well.

During the first months of the revolution, the children could be found in Tahrir, in tents with protestors, in schools set up by activists in the sit-ins and in the midst of the battles. Some children are there consciously because the battle against oppression is one they know far more than others. But for most children the street has become home, not only for them, but an entire population.

The revolution provides us with vast opportunities for working with the children, and of them, these are few;

-                Protestors and civilians who ‘pass through’ have interacted with the children and in many ways ‘seen’ them for the first time. Their plight has not only been acknowledged by people, but understood, and for the first time, openly shared. Many children are more comfortable talking about their experiences with the police, seeing that there is an opportunity and possibility for change. In many ways, the children feel heard. NGOs suffer this competition, as Tahrir has far stronger a lure over the children during sit-ins than the NGOs have. There they find the affection, and non-judgmental attention that they miss most

-                One of the revolution’s many demands, the restructuring of the Ministry of Interior, provides an opportunity for drastically affecting the situation with the children. For years, they have been the children’s biggest source of danger, and most NGOs time is spent intercepting, negotiating and finding ways to work with children, around the police. The possibility that children may not be placed in cells with criminals, and that they may not be abused or manipulated by police, will change the experiences of the children, and the work of NGOs forever.

-                For decades, NGOs have strived to do the work of the government, particularly in the realms of social development, welfare and social and financial support. The revolution offers an opportunity for the possibility of a different contract. If the ‘protection mechanism’ in the amended child law is activated, and the Ministry of defence’s shelters are reformed so that they are more child friendly, there is a possibility that NGOs may finally focus on providing services to the children, and spend less time trying to help them escape from abusive shelters, searching for children in police stations and prosecutors’ offices and trying to broker temporary marriages between pregnant girls and their boy-friends/rapists, in hope for a birth certificate for the unborn child. The revolution offers an opportunity where broken families can be intercepted and supported by the government and NGOs can be supported – rather than constantly being at war with the both the streets, and the government.

Mostly, at the moment the body of a 16 year old boy lies in Zeinhum morgue, since November events, waiting to be claimed. The revolution offers an opportunity where someone may be held accountable for the death of this little boy, and where a family may be wondering about his whereabouts. It offers an unmatched opportunity where no one is forgotten, where no one falls through the cracks.

V.                Recommendations and ways forward

For years, the slogan of a ‘working group’ of 20 civil society NGOs working to raise awareness about street children, was “A society’s responsibility”. The children are the responsibility of a society, but the symptom of a failed state. The result of poverty and oppression and injustice that lead to their ending up on the street, and an abusive police state that maintains their status quo and lives off their abuse.

The solution to the ‘problem’ is tightly interlinked with all our other problems. In the shadow of an unjust military council, the children suffer as the entire society does, injustice is as blind as we hoped justice would be.

The child-law exists, and human rights activists and lawyers, are working very hard to ensure it is not changed, but simply, activated.

Unless the police-state ends, the revolution will never be complete, and the possibility of the restructuring of the ministry of interior, must taken into account a section in every police station with social workers to deal with children and women.

 But most of all, the situation with street-children, like many of our other problems requires a breach in imagination. The children know what they want. They have lived for years off the cruelest streets, but they have had the benefits of learning from the world, rather than an education system that paralyzes the mind rather than liberating it. They understand politics; they understand the dark underworld of power struggles run by the police, state security and a system of oppression and paranoia. But most of all, they understand and know clearly what they want.

Seeing children less as ‘street-children’, less as violent and dangerous, and more as children, will perhaps be the strongest way forward. Listening to them more, understanding all they have gained from street life, and their aspirations and dreams for the limited ‘mainstream culture’ that we live, may mean not only saving their souls, but possibly also, saving ours.

[1] Some of the children’s names were changed in this document as per their request
[2] Personal interview, 2008
[3] Behavrioral Survey amongst street children in greater Cairo and Alexandria. Population council regional office for middle east and North Africa, 2008
[4] Hosam el din, Taiseer. Street Children in Egypt, Research Gaps and Key Policies. UNICEF; Cairo. October, 2011.
[5] For the full amended law see: Egypt’s Child law 126 for the year 2008. Childs Rights International Network.
[6] A study by NCCM and UNODC in 2007 indicate that over 55% of children on the streets have been abused by the police, however I believe this to be very conservative. A study by Hanna Abolghar, pediatrician and founder of the first reception centres and shelters for girls, indicate that most girls have been abused by police. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), NCCM. Guidance Manual for Protecting Street Children from Drugs, 2007.
[7] Based on interviews with 90 children in March, 2011. Also see:  Charged with being children. Human Rights Watch, 2003.
[8] Personal interview, March 2011 (Caritas, NGO, Haram)
[9] Personal interview, March 2011 (Mawa NGO, Monib)
[10] Personal Interview, March 2011 (Sayeda Zainab - street)
[11] Personal Interview, March 2011. Al Ma’wa NGO
[12] From : “Atfal da7aya el 3askar” “Children: victims of the military”
No Military trials Campaign:
[13] Ibid
[14] Ibid
[15] Ibid
[16] Ibid
[17] Figures and details of detention and release provided by the EFACC group of children’s lawyers (El mu’assassa al masreyya lel nuhud be ‘awda’ al tofulah) 65% of this figure were street-children.
[18] Testimony documented by The Egyptian association for societal consolidation – NGO for street Children in Masr el Qadima
[19] Testimony documented by the Egyptian association for societal consolidation
[20] Personal interview in Banati NGO, Masr el Qadima, March, 2012
[21] Personal Interview in EFACC, March 2012
[22] Personal Interview with social workers of Caritas NGO, March, 2012

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