The return of Egypt’s police state

Many Egyptian liberals supported the removal of the democratically elected Islamist President, Mohamed Morsi, but now the state has widened its crackdown, they are questioning the unholy alliance

Cairo

It was late at night when the gang of armed police stormed into the home of Alaa Abd El Fattah, one of Egypt’s most prominent activists.

The men, some of whom wore masks, reportedly beat Mr Fattah before handcuffing him and whisking him away. His wife said she was slapped around the face after asking to see an arrest warrant.

The raid, which took place at about 10pm on Thursday, was a boot-through-the-door operation with all the hallmarks of totalitarian security state. Mr Fattah’s crime? Organising a peaceful demonstration through the streets of central Cairo earlier this week. This is Egypt three years into the Arab Spring: a land where even the simple act of spontaneous protest has become illegal.

For some of the secular activists who supported the popular coup against the Muslim Brotherhood over the summer, the fate of Alaa Abd El Fattah – along with numerous other  protesters and critics of the military-backed government – has led to a great deal of soul-searching about the direction in which their revolution is now heading.

Many enthusiastically welcomed the putsch that ousted Mohamed Morsi, seeing the generals as the only way to rid Egypt of an Islamist government which had become hugely unpopular and stood accused of numerous rights abuses. But five months on, that initial support has morphed into deep wariness among some of those who backed the army’s intervention. “The thing which brought the secular politicians and the military together was the Muslim Brotherhood,” said Dr Khalil al-Anani, a Washington-based expert on Egyptian affairs. “They thought that the military was the only force which could stop the Islamists and that’s why they supported them. Now because things didn’t go down the path they thought it would they are regretting it. Some of them think the military is trying to reproduce the same authoritarian regime that used to exist under Hosni Mubarak.”

Much of the recent disquiet surrounds the passing of a new law which criminalises unplanned street protests. The legislation – drafted by the military-backed interim government and rubber-stamped last week – requires protesters to seek police consent if they intend to hold a political demonstration involving more than 10 people.

Protest organisers are forced to inform the authorities of the “overall theme” of any planned rallies, where exactly it is taking place and a record of the organisers’ names.

In addition, the interior ministry – still a hated symbol of state oppression and brutality for many revolutionaries – will have sweeping powers to cancel demonstrations and designate “protest-free” zones around public institutions.

It was this new protest law which led to the detention of Alaa Abdel Fattah after a prosecutor issued a warrant for his arrest. Mr Fattah – a long-time activist who was once jailed under Hosni Mubarak’s regime, and also during the rule of the military council which followed the 2011 revolt – had helped to organise this week’s rally against the new legislation.

Ahmed al-Hawary, an activist who helped formed the so-called June 30 Front in opposition to Mr Morsi, told The Independent that Egypt was now witnessing the “last breath of the fragile coalition” between pro-democracy secularists and the military. “It was an extremely fragile alliance,” he said. “We knew the risks. We knew there was a possibility of going where we are heading now.”

However, he added that “nobody regrets” the toppling of the Muslim Brotherhood, and that supporting the military’s intervention was “our only choice” to get rid of what he called the group’s brand of Islamic “fascism”.

Dr H.A. Hellyer, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a British defence and security think-tank, said that while it was true that some Egyptian politicians and activists were guilty of “naivety” in their initial support of the popular coup, it was not completely fair to say that the chickens were now coming home to roost for all involved.

“I remember many in the political elite and activist circles being clear that they were happy Morsi was gone, but that this was not how they wanted it,” he said. “They now have to ask themselves, as some in the anti-Morsi camp did back in July: was there another way to bring down Morsi?”

He added that the complexities of the Egyptian state – where the interior ministry and the army often have concurrent, but not precisely the same interests – meant that support for the army did not necessarily equate to support for the interior ministry, or for the crackdown.

For those who recall the unprecedented wave of street agitation which led to the toppling of Mr Mubarak in January 2011, the recent crackdown against secular activists has provided ample evidence that the balance of power inside Egypt is shifting in favour of the country’s deeply entrenched security apparatus.

Such suspicions were heightened following this week’s protests. Dozens of activists were detained during the first of the rallies, including 14 women who were bundled into a van and then driven through the desert before being dumped on an isolated road.

“They want to terrorise us,” said Mona Seif, a prominent activist among the 14 women, who is also the sister of Alaa Abd El Fattah. “I think the Interior Minister decided to escalate and tell everyone whose family was killed ... beaten or anything that, ‘I am here, this is how I do business, and if you don’t like it, beat your head against the wall’.”

On Wednesday, the general prosecutor announced that 24 people who had been arrested during the protests would be held for further questioning. The protesters stand accused of “chanting antagonistic slogans against the state” and “disturbing traffic”.

The same day – and in a further indication that the authorities are willing to use harsh punishments to crack down on dissent – several female Islamists were sentenced to 11 years in jail for taking part in another protest in the coastal city of Alexandria.

A total of 21 protesters – including seven aged 15 and 16 – were convicted after being accused of holding a rally last month to demand Mr Morsi’s reinstatement. The teenagers were given prison terms until they turned 18, while the rest were given longer sentences. Last night, Egypt’s interim President, Adly Mansour, said he would issue full pardons to the women in Alexandria. However, the fate of the other convicts remains unknown.

Since Mr Morsi was ousted on 3 July, the numerous glimpses of renewed streaks of authoritarianism have been largely directed against Egypt’s Islamists. The effect of the military’s interference resulted in a paranoid clampdown on anything resembling anti-authoritarian iconoclasm.

This month, a top football player was suspended by his club for mimicking the now famous four-finger symbol of pro-Morsi supporters during a match. Days earlier, an Egyptian kung fu champion was sent home from an international tournament for daring to wear the same symbol on a T-shirt.

Yet now it is the previously cowed and quiescent secular activists who have started to agitate against the new regime – leading some to warn that such government initiatives as the new controls on protests may end up backfiring. Shady el-Ghazaly Harb, a member of the liberal Dostour Party, told The Independent that the state’s heavy-handed tactics could lead to secularists and Islamists once again finding common cause together. “The Muslim Brotherhood will use their sympathisers to gain more ground in order for them to reach their political goals,” he added.

Egypt’s Islamists are already trying to capitalise on the recent backlash from anti-government activists. In a statement, a Brotherhood-led coalition against the interim government criticised what it called the “brutal repression” of this week’s demonstrations, saying that the “youth of the revolution stand united”. The group’s words were met with a swift rebuttal, however. “A message to the Muslim Brotherhood: we will not put our hands in the hands of those who betrayed and hijacked the revolution,” said Hossam Moanis, spokesman of one activist group, the Popular Current.

Timeline

11 February 2011

President Mubarak steps down after weeks of protests and hands power to the military

19 March

Egyptians vote for constitutional amendments sponsored by the military

30 June 2012

Mohamed Morsi is sworn in, having won a presidential election with 51.7 per cent of the vote

12 August

Mr Morsi orders top Mubarak-era military leadership to retire

22 November

He grants himself more powers, including  immunity

25 January 2013

Hundreds of thousands protest against Morsi

3 July

The army deposes Mr Morsi. Hundreds of pro-Morsi supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood are killed in the weeks that follow

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