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      Anatomy of a Killing: How Shaimaa al-Sabbagh Was Shot Dead at a Cairo Protest

      Anatomy of a Killing: How Shaimaa al-Sabbagh Was Shot Dead at a Cairo Protest Anatomy of a Killing: How Shaimaa al-Sabbagh Was Shot Dead at a Cairo Protest Anatomy of a Killing: How Shaimaa al-Sabbagh Was Shot Dead at a Cairo Protest
      Image by John Beck

      Egypt

      Anatomy of a Killing: How Shaimaa al-Sabbagh Was Shot Dead at a Cairo Protest

      By John Beck

      Warning: This article contains graphic images

      Shaimaa al-Sabbagh died publicly. Journalists and camera phone-wielding bystanders captured the last desperate moments of her life after she was fatally shot on January 24, at a small, peaceful demonstration in downtown Cairo. 

      One painfully striking photograph became famous, reproduced on newspaper front pages and social media platforms — helping to turn her killing into a rallying point for opponents of Egypt's violently oppressive military government.

      In it, she's being held upright, her small frame supported by a man in a black jacket with his arms around her waist and head at her breast. She looks ahead, her mouth slightly open in agony or shock, her short hair disheveled and clothes stained by the lingering Cairo dust. There is blood smeared down her cheek and leaking through her grey jumper in small patches where the contents of a shotgun cartridge fired at close range by a member of the security forces tore into her upper back, lacerating her heart and lungs.

      Photographer Islam Osama took the now iconic image of Sabbagh as her friend Sayyid Abu el-Ela tried to save her. Image via Reuters.

      The man in the picture is Sayyid Abu el-Ela, a friend of Sabbagh's who also attended the rally, meant to commemorate the hundreds killed in the popular uprising that unseated longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak in January 2011.

      The two first met four years previously as active members of revolutionary groups and remained close throughout the political tumult which Egypt has suffered since then — together during acts of civil disobedience, rallies, marches and violent clashes with security forces. Sabbagh was, Ela says, "more than a brother" to him. Immediately after the picture was taken, he carried her across the road and placed her on the sidewalk. There are more pictures taken then, her eyes are closed and her head hangs back.

      They couldn't stay on that patch of concrete. Security forces had already arrested two of those who'd tried to help Sabbagh and were chasing other demonstrators down the street, so another friend, Mustafa Abdul-Ail, gathered her limp body up and moved down a passageway to a café with a loose arrangement of plastic chairs spread outside. He put her in one of them while both he and Ela shouted for an ambulance, and when security officers ignored their pleas, tried to find taxi or even a private car to take Sabbagh to hospital. Police were at both ends of the alley, however, and people were reluctant to help. The only one who did, was a doctor named Maher Nassar, who had been sitting in the café and came over to try and give first aid. But after a brief examination, he told Abdul-Ail and Ela that she was dead. More cops arrived seconds later and dragged away all of those around Sabbagh, leaving her body slumped in the chair alone.

      'We know that freedom is expensive, but now we ask ourselves if it is as expensive as Shaimaa's blood, and we are not sure about that.'

      Sabbagh was 31, and lived in Alexandria with her five-year-old son, Bilal, nicknamed "Bebo." She was a member of the leftist Socialist People's Alliance Party (SPAP) — organizers of the demonstration at which she died — and a tireless participant in politics and public work. Friends describe her providing what assistance she could for some of the most vulnerable members of society: workers, slum-dwellers and street kids.

      She studied public folklore and was working on documenting the traditions of small Nile valley villages. A well-known poet too, Sabbagh wrote often about daily life and politics. It wasn't always serious; a colleague recalls through a mixture of tears and laughter that she once penned some verses about breadsticks, even though she didn't eat much.

      Those who knew Sabbagh say she was a calm and conciliatory person, a constant source of support, despite instability in her own life. She was optimistic too, convinced that Egypt would soon move beyond its recent sad history.

      Above all, friends say, she was a loyal mother, devoted to Bilal — a smart boy who she raised to know his rights and responsibilities, and worked hard to put in a good school. At the time of writing, he's staying with a family friend and does not yet know his mother is dead.

      Sabbagh inspired love and respect from the network of singers, artists, directors, authors, politicians, family and friends through which she moved, and some have now gathered together to continue her projects and reprint her poems.

      Her funeral was in Alexandria on January 25, but many came also to a memorial service held in a Cairo mosque a week after her death. Ela was there, first in a line of friends and SPAP comrades lined up under a portrait of her face at the mens' entrance to greet those who came to pay their respects. He was distraught. "It was an honor to live beside her, the most important thing that happened to me in my life was to be with her in her last moment," he told VICE News, stopping occasionally to brush away tears. "We know that freedom is expensive, but now we ask ourselves if it is as expensive as Shaimaa's blood, and we are not sure about that."

      Later, he sobbed openly, comforted by Abdul-Ail as they embraced under the picture's gaze.

      A week later, he described Sabbagh as the most precious person he knew. "She was the only beautiful thing in my life. And after her, there is nothing beautiful around."

      Ela and Abdul-Ail embrace under a picture of Sabbagh during a Cairo memorial ceremony. Image by John Beck

      Sabbagh began the day she died at her home in Alexandria. She entrusted Bilal to a friend and caught a 9.30am Cairo train with three SPAP colleagues. They arrived around noon, had a late breakfast and drunk tea and coffee at a cafe, Hossam Nasr, one of the group who traveled with her, told VICE News. Then they climbed the five dusty flights of stairs to SPAP's anonymous downtown headquarters for a meeting on how to approach March's parliamentary elections.

      It was an important discussion. The Egyptian military removed Mohamed Morsi, the country's first democratically elected president, from power in mid-2013 and has since tightened control, suppressing any form of dissent and persecuting Morsi's followers with systematic brutality. It also introduced a protest law allowing authorities to ban even peaceful demonstrations and forcibly disperse or jail protesters. Former army chief President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was elected virtually unopposed in 2014's presidential polls and has since said that the upcoming elections will be the final stage in a democratic changeover. But instead, they look set to usher in Mubarak-era officials and a further regression to the old order, prompting many opposition groups to call for boycotts.

      Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood, meanwhile, once the most organized political faction in Egypt, has now been outlawed, hundreds of supporters killed in clashes with security forces and thousands more jailed.

      As well as the elections, SPAP's political bureau also planned to discuss an idea which had first been circulated on a closed Facebook group two days before — sending a small delegation to lay flowers in commemoration of those who lost their lives in the 2011 revolution at the government-constructed monument in central Tahrir Square. Sabbagh was in good spirits that afternoon, laughing, joking, Nasr recalls, and at one point teasing SPAP party's Secretary General Talat Fahmi — a well dressed, silver-haired party elder — and threatening to chant "down, down with Talat Fahmi!" in the street. She sang too, including Ana Bahebak Ya Biladi, a popular revolutionary song written from the perspective of a martyr speaking to their mother:

      "tell my mother 'don't be sad,

      swear on my life you won't cry',

      tell her 'sorry mother,

      I died, but our country lived.'"

      It didn't seem like anyone would die for their country that day. Party leaders resolved to go ahead with the march, and while they were aware that it would violate the protest law, insisted the delegation be small, remain peaceful and avoid any possible provocation. The plan was to assemble briefly, lay a wreath with an SPAP placard then leave. Anti-government and anti-security forces slogans would be eschewed for the uncontroversial revolutionary mantra of "bread, freedom and social justice," and they agreed to return to the party headquarters if ordered to disperse. The timing of the march was also deliberate, Fahmi says. The uprising's official anniversary is January 25, but the Brotherhood had vowed action on the day itself. To avoid trouble, SPAP decided to stage its demonstration 24 hours earlier.

      Security forces had, as they often do during tense periods, blocked access to Tahrir Square with razor wire and armored vehicles, so instead, the demonstrators decided on Talaat Harb Square, a six-way junction centered around a statue of the Banque Misr founder for whom it is named.

      The group left the SPAP office on Mohammed Sedqy Pasha Street carrying a wreath of flowers and a large banner a little after 3.30pm. There were around 30 attendees in all, 13 of them more than 60 years old and two over 70, Fahmi says. They started the short walk toward the square via Hoda Shaarawy Street, sticking to their plan of only non-inflammatory chants, according to a number of witnesses. It was a weekend and the streets were virtually empty, but they kept on the sidewalk to avoid blocking traffic. When they turned onto Talaat Harb Street and headed towards the plaza they saw a mixed force of uniformed police, plain clothed officers and members of the Central Security Forces — a paramilitary riot squad — ahead of them. They crossed to the other side of the road to avoid confrontation and stood in a line outside the Air France office on the southwestern corner of the square.

      But the security forces appeared to be mobilizing, readying weapons and taking position.

      Fahmi split off and approached the senior officer there, identified by lawyers and rights groups as a police brigadier general, and told him that they would place the flowers under the statue and leave without any further protest. The commander, recalls the SPAP secretary general, was enraged and threatened to violently disperse the demonstrators. Fahmi once again tried to explain, but was cut off. "He [the officer] repeated his threat so I told him in the end, 'ok, we will go'… I hadn't continued my sentence when I found a wave of bullets."

      As Fahmi moved back towards the demonstrators to tell them to leave, sirens screeched, the security forces moved forward and firing began; tear gas at first, quickly followed by birdshot.

      The demonstrators scattered. Or most did. Sabbagh was insistent that they should stay. Her worried colleagues tried to pull her away. "I was saying to Shaimaa 'let's run, because they will start intensively shooting,' says Nasr, who is seen wearing green and standing close to Sabbagh in video and pictures of the incident. "She said: 'no we started this and we have to finish it, their purpose is to scare us'," he recalls. Ela was nearby too and both he and Nasr half-dragged, half-cajoled Sabbagh down the street. They only made it a few feet from the protest spot.

      Then, Nasr says, the brigadier general pointed towards them, seemingly giving an order to a masked officer holding a shotgun by his side. The gunman raised his weapon and fired birdshot in their direction at least three times. Some of the pellets from the first or second shot hit another Alexandria party member, Mohammed Sherif, in the head and arm and a few others lodged in Sabbagh's back and face, Nasr says. The third hit Sabbagh squarely in the back. The dozens of small lead balls inside a birdshot cartridge are designed to spread out over their trajectory. But the range was so close that almost all entered her body, tearing into her heart and lungs and causing massive internal bleeding, according to a subsequent forensics report.

      Osama fled the scene to avoid arrest moments after taking these photographs. He says he is now haunted by her image. Image via Reuters.

      For a moment, Nasr didn't notice his friend had been wounded, and moved between her and the security forces to protect her from further fire. As he did so, she collapsed. "I thought she fell down because I was dragging her in the opposite direction," he remembers. "It didn't enter my mind that she had been shot." He tried to pull her up from the concrete, shouting that they had to go, to run. But members of the security forces, including a plain-clothes officer in a cream jacket — also visible in the video footage — dragged him off, slammed him against a metal shutter by the Air France office, then hustled him towards an armored vehicle beating him as they went. He looked back and glimpsed Ela carrying a bloodied Sabbagh. It was the last time he saw her.

      Ela says he was two or three steps away when Sabbagh crumpled to the ground. He immediately went to help, but also didn't realise that she'd been shot until he found blood on her upper back. When she didn't respond, he put his arms around her waist and tried to pick her up himself. It was then that Islam Osama, a photographer with the local Youm El Sabea newspaper, took the now-iconic picture.

      Osama was behind Sabbagh when she fell, and took two pictures, moved closer and shot several more while Ela attempted to help her, then immediately fled the area to avoid arrest.

      He later told VICE News that the international impact his photograph has had is a source of professional pride, but that the image itself still affects him — the expression on her face something he sees again and again: "I sympathize with Shaimaa so much and the picture I took... the way she was… it became a ghost haunting me all the time," he says.

      Ela described Sabbagh as the 'only beautiful thing in my life' and the most precious person he knew. Image via Reuters.

      Ela carried Sabbagh across the road and put her down close to Cafe Riche, a Cairo institution that has witnessed key moments of Egypt's political history over its more than a century in business.

      There, he tried to find out how badly she'd been hurt. "I didn't know what kind of injuries she had, and if they were dangerous or not," he says, "…[but] she started bleeding from the nose and mouth and I knew they were dangerous."

      He describes then asking a nearby police officer to call an ambulance, but being ignored.

      Fahmi recalls finding Ela and Abdul-Ail outside Café Riche on each side of Shaimaa, panicked and confused. "I asked what was happening," he told VICE News from his office a few days later. "They said she was dying and I began to scream for an ambulance too."

      He says he sharply ordered a young police officer with a walkie-talkie to call for medical help. The cop did as he was told, but none came. Fahmi continued to shout until the brigadier general noticed and arrived with men to arrest him. He was the second to be detained trying to help Sabbagh.

      Abdul-Ail, a big, bearded man with curly hair seen wearing orange in pictures from the day, picked up his mortally wounded colleague and moved down al-Bostan al-Sidi passage, while Ela ran in front, trying to get someone to call an ambulance or a taxi.

      They placed Sabbagh in a chair in front of another café. Both say she was then still trying to grasp their hands.

      Abdul-Ail also describes repeatedly asking the police for help. "First I asked the security forces to call an ambulance but they didn't do anything. I asked many times. And afterwards, I carried her… and asked them to bring an ambulance one more time but they refused. I put her on a chair…. I didn't know then that she had already died."

      Dr. Nassar — a white bearded man in his 60s with longish hair and thick black glasses — had just finished a cup of coffee and was about to ask for the check when the shooting started. When he saw Sabbagh, he came over to see if he could help. He couldn't. Nassar told VICE News that he examined Sabbagh's vital signs and quickly realized that her wounds were fatal. "I could do nothing for her, I had no instruments, no bandages, no blood and I told them she was dead."

      "He looked at her eyes, and said she had died," Ela recalls. "We screamed at him, we were not convinced that she had."

      Security forces then arrived from both ends of the alley and grabbed the men — including Nassar — one by one from around Sabbagh. They continued to beg for help. "While they were arresting us, we told them 'ok take us, [but] please first rescue her.' We [said] we were her brothers, so please don't leave her bleeding on the pavement','" Ela says.

      Their pleas went unanswered; security forces threw them into armored vehicles but left Sabbagh slumped in the plastic chair.

      Just four minutes had passed since Sabbagh was shot, and roughly 15 since they had set out on the march.


      Not everyone was detained. Nagwa Abbas, an SPAP political bureau member who took part in the demonstration, told VICE News that she saw Sabbagh being carried towards al-Bostan al-Sidi passage followed by a police vehicle and the brigadier general, who was gesturing that those trying to save her be arrested.

      Abbas, an older woman with white-streaked black hair then hid herself in the bathroom of the cafe where Sabbagh died, until a party colleague, Mohammed Salah, called and asked her to go with the owner of a private car that offered to take her wounded colleague to the hospital. Salah had been threatened with arrest and tried to move from the area, but was detained anyway. Abbas went outside immediately and saw a youth carrying Sabbagh towards a car driven by an older man. Both were strangers, so she got in the back with Sabbagh's head on her lap while the younger man sat in front next to the driver. Sabbagh had at that point "no sign of life," she says.

      The men drove them to the nearby Cairo Kidney Center, where they placed Sabbagh in a wheelchair and then quickly left. The identity of the driver and youth is unknown to Sabbagh's friends and colleagues, but Abbas says she suspects that they were affiliated with the security forces, because the older man drove almost directly into a checkpoint then had a brief conversation with the officers there, during which he called them by name.

      Azza Matar, a party colleague and friend of Sabbagh's, arrived at the hospital shortly afterwards. She had been late to the march and repeatedly tried to phone Sabbagh as she walked towards Talaat Harb Square from her nearby apartment.

      But when she got to Hoda Shaarawy street, she told VICE News, her SPAP colleagues were running in the opposite direction pursued by police vehicles and shouting that they'd been shot at and gassed. She looked for Sabbagh, but friends told her to get to the office — staying in the street would mean certain arrest.

      From inside the headquarters, she called and called Sabbagh until at last someone picked up. A stranger answered. "She told me 'the owner of this phone is alone in the cafe, she's helpless and someone has to take her to the hospital'," Matar recalls. She and other party members ran down the stairs and outside.

      On the way, she met other SPAP members who said Abbas had gone with Sabbagh to the hospital. They didn't know which one, so Matar began frantically calling Abbas instead. While she tried, an ambulance finally arrived at the second cafe. It had taken at least 30 minutes.

      Eventually Abbas answered, her voice trembling. "Shaimaa is not ok," she told Matar. "And I don't know what to do."

      Matar hurried to the Kidney Center. When she arrived, doctors had already pronounced Sabbagh dead and were standing in a circle talking. "I found her [Sabbagh] in a wheelchair, blood coming out of her mouth and nose and her sweater red with blood. There were two wounds in her left cheek," Matar says. "Obviously she was dead, dead a long time ago."

      Ela and Abdul-Ail tried to help Sabbagh but were arrested by security forces. Image via Reuters.

      She called the other party members to tell them the news. Some thought it was a joke at first or didn't believe it and insulted and cursed her. Matar then searched for Sabbagh's phone to avoid it being confiscated by police. Another party member who had arrived at the hospital handed it to her. Sabbagh's mother and sister rang continuously. Eventually, Matar picked and told them what had happened. "It was me who had to convey the news to them," she remembers. "When they called she [Sabbagh] was in front of my eyes. I tried not to answer but they kept calling."

      Bilal called too, but this time, she ignored it. "The child, I couldn't...," she says, fading off.

      It quickly became chaotic in the tiny hospital reception. More party members and friends began to arrive, accompanied by human rights lawyers. Police appeared too and put Sabbagh's body into the morgue. The chief of Qasr al-Nile police station, which has jurisdiction in the area, was with them. Both Matar and Abbas insist that he was the brigadier general who gave the order to shoot at Taalat Harb Square although lawyers working with SPAP say this is not the case.

      The crowd there thought so, however, and shouted at the man, calling him a killer and arguing over Sabbagh's documents, which hospital staff had taken.

      As they did, someone screamed that the police were trying to move her body out of the back door. It is standard procedure after a violent death, but Matar says they panicked, assuming that if authorities had both the body and the IDs then Sabbagh's friends and family would not be able to prove she had even existed, let alone how she died.

      The group rushed to the hospital's rear entrance and found officers securing a passage to an ambulance for Sabbagh's body, which was now on a stretcher. Abbas tried to reach them. "I told them I wanted to finish my mission and if they wanted to arrest me because I took the body, then they could, but they should keep me with the body," she says.

      The police chief then elbowed her in the chest, she claims, knocking her back as Sabbagh was put into the ambulance. But SPAP members and supporters blocked the vehicle's way and hustled Ahmad Raghib, a lawyer with the human rights-focused Hisham Mubarak Law Center, into the ambulance. He accompanied her body to central Zeinhom morgue.

      Matar and many others, including several more lawyers, joined them there from around 6pm and stayed while the legal team pushed for an autopsy, which was eventually performed. They waited for seven hours until Sabbagh's uncle came to collect the body.

      'I sympathize with Shaimaa so much and the picture I took... the way she was… it became a ghost haunting me all the time.'

      Six were arrested as Sabbagh died: Fahmi, Ela, Abdul-Ail, Nasr, Nassar and Salah. Nasr, the first to be arrested says that he was beaten after being taken to an armored vehicle. Fahmi, second to be seized, says that he too was physically abused as he was taken away, even though he insisted he wasn't resisting. He describes being thrown at officers' feet in the same armored vehicle as Nasr.

      The men were then transferred to a police van, where they found Ela and the others, who told them that Sabbagh had died. All six were then taken to Qasr al-Nile police station and transferred to Abdeen district, where they spent the night before being routed on to the local prosecutor's office later that day.

      Prosecution officers first said that they would be questioned as eyewitnesses, but then pressed charges for attacking security forces, blocking traffic, and chanting anti-government slogans.

      Several others, including Abbas and Center for Egyptian Women's Legal Assistance chair Azza Suleiman, who were not arrested with the six men, later went to give testimony and charged with the same offenses.

      All the charges but that of violating the protest law have now been withdrawn after being rendered blatantly false by the large amount of video evidence. But the defendants could still face jail time.

      Sabbagh's funeral was held in the city of Alexandria. Image via Reuters

      The accounts given by all interviewees — including some not named in the piece — correspond on all major points and almost all details, although there are some small disparities. Osama is sure that Ela was the first person to try and help Sabbagh. Nasr can be seen in pictures in the seconds before she was shot, however, as well as being arrested moments later.

      Fahmi believes tear gas wasn't fired, saying he would have been certain to smell it. Nevrtheless, Osama has pictures of the gas and everyone else reports that it was fired before the birdshot.

      The most striking discrepancy came from Atef Salama, a worker in the al-Bostan al-Sidi Passage cafe who started his shift shortly before the events took place. At first, he gave VICE News an identical account to the others, saying that those surrounding Sabbagh were arrested within "three or four" minutes of arriving at the cafe, by which point she was "already gone."

      Later, however, after the interview touched on his being questioned by the police, he blamed those around her for failing to help and said that they refused offers of a car and a motorbike to take Sabbagh to hospital. He then said that there had in fact been a 15-minute wait before the arrests took place. "They [the police] have questioned me three times... And I said the same things I told you," he said. "I tried to help her and I am accusing the people around her before she died."

      'The investigation neglected those with actual weapons and went with illusionist tricks.'

      It is virtually certain that a member of the security forces shot Sabbagh. Numerous eyewitnesses describe the same masked man raising and firing his weapon in her direction before she collapsed to the ground, and the same scene is also seen in video footage. Moreover, the forensics report says the birdshot found in her body was fired from no more than eight meters away, allowing little other possibility.

      Even Sisi took the almost unprecedented step of hinting that a member of the police might be responsible during a speech in which he described Sabbagh as his "daughter", although added that the reputation of an entire institution should not be tarnished by the actions of an individual. Authorities have now opened an investigation into the killing.

      But this only happened after huge publicity and rare condemnation by state media. It previously looked as if her death would be whitewashed like so many others. An Interior Ministry official, General Gamal Mokhtar told reporters on January 28 that police would not use force to disperse such a small demonstration and suggested that the footage showing her being shot might have been staged. Minister for the Interior Mohamed Ibrahim said that police officers only carried tear gas and that shotguns were "strictly forbidden" at demonstrations.

      These claims are also plainly untrue. Shotguns were reported by all eyewitnesses that spoke with VICE News and can be seen in photographs and video footage of the event.

      Some pro-government media outlets also suggested that the Muslim Brotherhood might somehow be guilty of killing Sabbagh. The group is now frequently blamed for almost any ill, even for acts — like attacks on troops in the Sinai — for which others have claimed responsibility.

      In the aftermath, videos also began to circulate among army supporters suggesting the real killer was a tall man in a brown jacket seen walking away, apparently calmly, from the scene. The man had his hand in his pocket and, they claimed, had shot her with a concealed weapon.

      The man was SPAP vice-president and acting leader Zohdy el-Shami, who had also been at the march. He had been hit in the head during the rush to escape the firing and was moving away in a daze, he says.

      Afterwards, he attended Sabbagh's Alexandria funeral then returned to his home in nearby Damanhour. However, on January 31 the Qasr al-Nil district prosecutor's office demanded his presence in Cairo, then questioned him as a suspect for hours and accused him of carrying a weapon and assaulting citizens.

      Shami, a slender, mild mannered man in his 60s who recently had heart surgery, is diplomatic, but bemused by the affair. "The investigation neglected those with actual weapons and went with illusionist tricks," he told VICE News.

      It would of course be easy to prove if he had indeed shot Sabbagh with a gun in his pocket, as his jacket would at the very least be singed and coated with gunshot residue. Prosecutors accordingly went to Shamy's house in Damanhour and retrieved the garment.

      However, they did so without a warrant and without Shamy actually being present, he says, both legal violations. Ali Soliman, a lawyer with the Front to Defend Egypt's Protesters working with SPAP on the case backs this account and adds that authorities then claimed that Shami's family had voluntarily given them the jacket. But he lives alone, and Soliman says witnesses saw prosecution officers break down the door.

      The lawyer adds that he was worried the prosecution would shoot a hole in the coat and fabricate evidence in order to frame Shami. After SPAP leaders, along with representatives of other political parties, met with Sisi in a prescheduled meeting, however, he was released.

      Sisi gave his speech on the matter shortly afterwards and this had a "magical effect," Soliman says, adding that without it, he is sure the SPAP vice-president would have been made patsy. "Without this meeting they would have put a gun there [the coat pocket] and shot a bullet and finished!" he says, dusting his hands.

      Dr. Nassar criticizes Sabbagh's colleagues for moving Sabbagh, something he says could have caused further harm. In the midst of the firing, Ela and Abdul-Ail felt they had little other option, however, and doing so is common in Egypt, where few have medical training and the bloodied bodies of the wounded or dying are often rushed from clashes on the back of motorbikes or in friends' arms.

      Pictures of President Sisi and other government officials with the word "killer" are held by protesters on a Cairo Bridge on February 14. Image via Reuters.

      Qasr al-Nile prosecutor's office announced on February 10 that Sabbagh's killer is now in custody and will be identified within days, according to state media. Initial reports indicated that this may be a police officer.

      Two days later, Prosecutor General Hisham Barakat ordered a media gag order until investigations are completed and urged "accurate" media coverage. The statement also described the case as a misdemeanor, however, which means that even if a conviction does follow, the maximum sentence will be just three years.

      Even if appropriate justice is meted out to those responsible for Sabbagh's death, this would be a special case. The huge amount of damning photographic and video footage combined with a forensics report officially establishing how she died and her background as a mother, poet and secular activist made it hard for authorities to accuse her of violence or blame another party. 

      Instead, the image of a peaceful demonstrator gunned down as she lay flowers to commemorate the dead prompted massive criticism that forced an official reaction. Likely not for ethical reasons, however, but because authorities are increasingly aware that police brutality was one of the reasons for the 2011 revolution and that it can pose a future existential threat too.

      Hundreds have died at the hands of security forces since the revolution, but their killers are rarely held accountable in any form. This year alone, 26 perished around the revolution anniversary and more than 20 lost their lives in a stampede when officers shot birdshot and teargas at soccer fans outside a Cairo stadium on February 8. None will be described as Sisi's children, or, if previous cases are anything to go by, even be the subject of a proper investigation. 

      A girl, 17-year-old Sondos Ridha was shot and killed at an Islamist-led protest in Alexandria by police the day before Sabbagh's death. Her association with the Muslim Brotherhood, which is reviled by the state and secular opposition alike, meant outrage was limited. There was little condemnation, no rush of sympathizers, and no forensics report. Instead, she, like so many others, was buried in silence along with her rights. 

      Follow John Beck on Twitter: @JM_Beck

      Topics: egypt, shaimaa al-sabbagh, protest, protester, cairo, sisi, january 24, africa, human rights, security forces, middle east, vice news best of 2015

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