Friday, July 8, 2011

Tahrir Square again echoes with cries for justice

New York Times
Egypt’s Tahrir Square Again Echoes With Cries for Justice

July 8, 2011


CAIRO — One woman called for a new revolution. A man called for former President Hosni Mubarak to be executed. An angry crowd in an auditorium here on Thursday night listened to stories of protesters injured or killed during Egypt’s revolution and in demonstrations since, and stood and applauded when a mother spoke of loss.

One of her sons was killed by a policeman’s bullet in January, and another son sits in a military prison, after he was beaten and arrested in a protest last week. “I’ve grown tired,” the mother, Amal Zine al Abadeen, told dozens who had gathered as a prelude to a rally of tens of thousands on Friday in Tahrir Square, where the uprising began.

“This revolution has done nothing for us,” she said. “I don’t want money. I don’t want anything at all. All I’m asking for is justice.”

For five months, Egyptians have shouldered a revolution’s burdens — economic malaise, sectarian discord and fears of rising crime — and seen few of its rewards. Perhaps no issue has symbolized their disappointment or galvanized popular anger as much as the sluggish — some say empty — effort to punish those who attacked the protesters.

That anger forms the emotional, combustible core of a bigger complaint that sees a reluctance by the military rulers to seek the truth about crimes that occurred during Mr. Mubarak’s rule, or to seek greater transparency, for instance, by lifting restrictions on televising trials.

Egypt’s ruling military council has rushed to contain popular anger by arresting scores of public officials, including Mr. Mubarak. But protesters say the arrests are aimed at appeasement, not justice, and have blocked the kind of catharsis that would allow the country to move forward.

“The main reason we have not yet crossed into a new Egypt is because we haven’t started dealing with past practices as a prelude to declaring, ‘Never again,’ ” said Hossam Bahgat, the director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.

Friday’s rally in Tahrir Square, drew members of all the major political parties, including the Muslim Brotherhood, and showed little of the feuding about the constitution, elections and other wedge issues.

Dr. Sherine Ibrahim, 33, a pediatrician, said she felt compelled to attend the protest — her first since the revolution — “because nothing has changed.”

“The justice system has not allowed any public access to the trials,” she said. “Trial dates are being delayed, ex-ministers who are notorious for being corrupt are being acquitted, and we, the people, aren’t allowed to be part of the process.”

There have already been many high-profile arrests, including Mr. Mubarak’s sons and many of his top officials: the country’s hated interior minister, Habib el-Adly, was sentenced to 12 years in prison on corruption charges. Lawyers for some of the accused have blamed prosecutors for conducting a witch hunt. Other people counter with a sobering fact: Though at least 840 protesters died in the uprising, since then, only one person — a rank-and-file police officer — has been convicted, in absentia, of murder.

Mr. Adly’s trial on charges of killing protesters has been delayed, a sign to some that the military council is unwilling to alienate Egypt’s security services.

“They are trying to avoid doing this,” said Hani Shukrallah, a political activist and the editor of Ahram Online, referring to the military council’s attitude toward prosecuting ex-officials and police officers for killing protesters. “At a basic level, they are afraid that once they start punishing these people, the whole security apparatus is going to unravel. Parts of it will go rogue, which is something they have demonstrated that they are quite capable of doing.”

Recent outbreaks of violence suggest the problems are getting worse. In Cairo, protesters, including relatives of people killed during the uprising, clashed with police officers in the worst violence since Mr. Mubarak’s final days in power. And this week, there were further clashes after the release of seven officers on bail who are on trial in the killing of protesters in Suez.

In the calls for a “cleansing” in Tahrir Square on Friday, there seemed to be a recognition that Egypt’s current rulers could not address past wrongs. “The army does not see Egypt as a country in need of transitional justice,” Mr. Bahgat said.

The family of a protester who was killed said their efforts to find justice had been stymied by the same kinds of abuses that had fueled the revolution.

Relatives of Mohamed Sayed, who was killed on Jan. 29, said the trial in the case has been delayed three times, and several weeks ago, they said, a state security official offered them more than $16,500 to drop the case. Mr. Sayed’s father, Sayed Abdul Latif, said they refused.

Mr. Abdul Latif took his anger to Tahrir Square, and camped out for a week. “We sleep in the street, and our children sleep in the dust, and the officer who killed my son is asleep in his house,” he said.

*Liam Stack and Dina Salah Amer contributed reporting.

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