Doctors as Witnesses: Forensic Medicine and Medical Testimonies in Post-Revolutionary Egypt

By Soha Bayoumi
Submitted to Session P4954 (From the Body to the Body-Politic: The Politics of Medical Knowledge and Practice, 2017 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries; Arab Studies; Health; History of Medicine;
LCD Projector with Audio Patch or Speakers;
Medicine has played an important role in the political events that took Egypt by storm since 2011: from the makeshift “field hospitals” erected around Tahrir Square and in other sites of direct political contestation to the role played by independent groups of doctors in reforming the health system after the uprising of 2011, controlling their syndicate and mobilizing for health rights and social justice. Among the spaces of contestation widened, if not opened, by the uprising between the state, on the one hand, and medical professionals, on the other hand, is the role played by forensic evidence in documenting state violence and police brutality. Drawing on fieldwork among medical professionals over the last five years and on scholarship on the role of forensic medicine in controlling populations and exercising political power, this paper will look at the role played by medical professionals, including forensic doctors and psychiatrists, in situations of political violence, and how they wielded their temporally and spatially privileged access to bodily suffering, to contest official accounts about injuries and deaths.
The paper will examine the role of the doctor as a witness, and a documenter of state violence within a contested territory of struggle between medical and state authority. It will rely on the analysis offered by the scholarship on expert witnesses and the weight assigned to expert testimonies both in formal legal settings and in larger social contexts to examine the prominent and often-contested role played by medical authority in the context of social and political turmoil by virtue of that medical authority’s enmeshment in a broader knowledge economy that recognizes the body as the grounds for “evidence.”
The paper will thus examine some of the tactics used by doctors in wielding their expertise as they bear witness to violence and to evidence of bodily terror, as well as the counter-tactics deployed by the State to discredit that evidence, including denial, intimidation, minimizing and victim-blaming. The paper is interested in how certain groups of doctors were able to negotiate their own ethico-political agency, despite pressures exerted on them to collude in, deny and/or erase the evidence of state violence. The paper thus demonstrates how the Egyptian state, which has for long attempted to shape medical authority as a marker of its modernity, is at the same time entangled in the paradox that this medical authority can potentially challenge its monopoly over the truth.