Saturday, March 19, 2011

Egyptian army cracks down on protesters darkens outlook

No More Protests? Egypt's Army Cracks Down

Wednesday, Mar. 16, 2011

Rania Abouzeid

The bare-chested 20-year-old Egyptian turns slowly to reveal a broad back that resembles a work of sadistic abstract art — a bloody, bruised composition of pink, red and purple. Long, deep gashes had been sliced through his skin; welts, pinker and more superficial, crisscross his body. His upper left arm is a mix of purples, a cufflike bruise that wraps all the way around his bicep. His right hand is bandaged, one of his fingers sprained. He runs his good hand over his closely shorn hair. His wavy locks, he says, were shaved off with glass shards by the same people who beat him.

On Wednesday, March 9, Khalid, who does not want his last name published, went down to Cairo's Tahrir Square, concerned about reports that thugs were attacking protesters in the iconic site where he had previously joined hundreds of thousands of his compatriots in the protests that brought down President Hosni Mubarak. He wanted to check on several friends among the hundreds of activists still camped out in the square to press the military government to meet the revolution's demands.

That afternoon, without warning, soldiers surged into the square behind what several witnesses said were lines of plainclothes thugs armed with metal pipes, electric cables and long, thick wooden rods. The uniformed and non-uniformed men reportedly worked in tandem, just like in Mubarak's days, rounding up hundreds of young men and women in an attack that lasted several hours, according to multiple accounts.

Khalid had been standing off to the side of the square, he says, when "a young baltagi" — Egyptian slang for a thug — pointed him out to several soldiers, yelling, "He's one of them." Within minutes, Khalid says, soldiers started punching him and two of his friends, before forcing them into the National Museum along with others grabbed on the square.

Human Rights Watch, quoting local activists, says that 190 of those detained were transferred to military prisons that day. Some, like Khalid and another Tahrir veteran, 33-year-old advertising executive Mahmoud Youssef, were released later that night, after being subjected to what Youssef and rights organizations say was hours of torture at the hands of the army and their plainclothes colleagues. About 153 still remain in custody, including 19 women.

Youssef says he was blindfolded, had his hands tied behind his back and was told to lie on his stomach. He was pummeled and kicked for hours with cables, pipes and other implements, in an account that meshes with what several other detainees have claimed. He doesn't understand why he was detained, given that the soldiers did not interrogate him. "They didn't even check my ID," he says. "I knew that the army was capable of this and that this was one of their methods. What I didn't expect was to be let go."

While grateful for his freedom, Youssef hasn't forgotten those still in custody. On Saturday, he, along with dozens of other young men and women, stood outside the imposing headquarters of the Military Tribunal in Nasr City, where many of the detainees are reportedly being held. Youssef was one of five young Tahrir activists allowed to meet on Saturday with senior military personnel in the building to lobby for the release of their detained comrades. He says the officers who addressed them "talked to us the way they talk to dogs," not in the fatherly tones heard previously in Tahrir Square. "There's no more baba," he says wryly as he lights one cigarette after the other.

"They told us that the situation in the country is very bad, and that we were disturbing the peace. They said our friends will be tried in military courts and that they will face not less than one year's prison for terrorizing civilians, among other charges," he says, adding that the officers told him the women would be "pardoned."

Human Rights Watch has called on Egypt's ruling Supreme Military Council to investigate and prosecute allegations of torture by the army, and to stop prosecuting civilians in military tribunals. "There can be no break from the abuses of the past while security forces — including military personnel — abuse people with impunity," Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch, recently said in a statement.

But in the new Egypt, some of the security forces don't appear to have changed their ways. One of the revolution's main demands had been for the dissolution of the dreaded state security network associated with the police force. Newly appointed Interior Minister Mansour el-Essawy had initially said that was a nonstarter, but on Tuesday he acquiesced to the demand. Still, its unclear how much will really change, given that el-Essawy said that a new national security agency would be formed in its place.

State security was a force of some 170,000, el-Essawi said. The new agency's mandate will be restricted to combating terrorism and espionage rather than spying on citizens. But preventing domestic terrorism would possibly require spying on its citizens.

The new minister's comments came just days after several offices of the much feared state security agencies, including the internal spy agency's Cairo headquarters, had been stormed by civilians who unearthed thousands of documents purportedly containing detailed surveillance of activists, artists, Muslim Brotherhood members, politicians and regular citizens. Some reportedly detailed torture; others were said to be more salacious and included sex tapes. Although 47 state security officers were arrested this week for their involvement in shredding and burning documents, it's unclear if anybody will be held accountable for the human-rights abuses detailed in the files.

"Nothing will happen to the security agencies," General Fouad Allam, former deputy chief of state security, told TIME recently. This idea that everything is going to change — no, it's wrong. There can be a change in ideas, a different approach, but you don't eliminate a system."

Khalid, the 20-year-old Tahrir veteran, doesn't know what has happened to his two friends, but his experience hasn't shaken his support for the army. "When the army first went down to the square, we were very happy, saying the army and the people are one hand. I still say that. I think it was a one-off, an isolated incident, but there is something going on and I don't understand it," he says. Former Prime Minister "Ahmed Shafiq and Mubarak are not being tried and they want to try us in military courts for peacefully protesting?" he adds. "I don't know why they are acting like this."

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