As Egypt remains wracked by violence and mayhem, under the cloak of chaos a pointed roundup of Egyptian activists, involved in organizing the current protests as well as other recent social movements, has increased. The move to detain and physically abuse dissidents has for decades been a regular practice of the Egyptian government for. As such, these most recent incidents of political suppression say little that is new about the spaces for dissent and criticism in the country.
What has changed, however, is the government’s ability to strike fear within the hearts of its people, particularly Egypt’s young activists. While the arrest and detention of activists and other protestors will likely continue as long as the regime endures, the calculations once justifying the damage these tactics do to government credibility have radically altered. With protestors emboldened by the government’s behaviors during the initial days of the revolt and the eyes of international media and foreign government trained on the country, the demonstrators’ capacity to endure the government’s traditional fear tactics, those centered around rights deprivations and an Islamist bogeyman, appear to have increased.
Though the regime’s previous powers to silence dissent made the tactics of low-level repression attractive tools of government control, in today’s Egypt, where the veil of fear has been torn, they do little to intimidate activists and protestors. For a regime unable to unhand the reigns of power, the Mubarak government has little choice than to switch from its long-standing practice of insidious, but low-intensity repression, to the most extreme tactics. In this environment, the only tool left within the government’s repressive toolbox, the cold-blooded mass murder of protestors, is the one most likely to completely destroy its credibility and reputation both domestically and abroad.
Silencing Its Opponents: Government Detention of Activists During the Current Revolt & in the Recent Past
The Current Uprising
The Egyptian government’s treatment of activists and others involved in the on-going demonstrations has been a rehash of the same old autocratic tactics long prevailing within the country. At the start of the uprising, Wael Ghoneim, Google’s head of marketing for the Middle East and North Africa, disappeared after participating in protests on Friday January 28. While there have been conflicting reports about his current circumstances, Google has confirmed that his whereabouts remain unknown. According to reports, a prominent Egyptian blogger known as “Sandmonkey” was recently arrested, beaten and then released.
On February 3, Egyptian security officials reportedly stormed the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, a legal aid clinic and hub for human rights and civil society groups, arresting approximately 30 people, including the center’s director Ahmed Seif, father or prominent Egyptian activists Alaa Abd El Fattah and Mona Seif, as well as Khaled Ali, director of the Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights, several members of the April 6 youth movement, which has taken a lead role in organizing the current protests, and representatives from international human rights group such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
According to unconfirmed reports, Ahmed Maher, a co-founder of Egypt’s April 6 Movement and a key organizer of the current demonstrations, may have been detained and beaten by police on February 2. As a prominent young activist, Ahmed Maher is hardly a stranger to arbitrary arrest and detention. In February 2010, Maher and Aril 6 Movement member Amr Ali were arrested as they departed a meeting organizing a celebratory reception for Mohamed ElBaradei, who was returning to Egypt after stepping down as head of the International Atomic Energy Agency to become involved in Egyptian politics.
In addition to the detention of these prominent activists, ordinary citizens taking part in the current demonstrations have also been subject to arbitrary detention. While it is unclear how many protestors have been rounded-up since demonstrations began on January 25, according to television reports from Al Jazeera English, as of February 3, approximately 1500 individuals involved in the protests.
The history of the government’s restrictions against political activity and freedom of expression has been well documented. A 2009 U.S. State Department report on the human rights in Egypt details actions taken by the government against numerous activists, many of whom have turned to blogging as the primary vehicle for their dissent. Egyptian blogger Karim Amer, who’s imprisonment in 2006 made him the first blogger to be incarcerated for his writings and led to popular mobilization in support of his release, was convicted and sentenced in 2007 to four years in prison for “denigrating religion” and insulting Mubarak. While Amer completed his prison term in November 2010, his release occurred ten days later than scheduled; during this time, security officials reportedly physically mistreated him at the headquarters of the internal security department in Alexandria.
In 2007, blogger and activist Musad Abu Fagr was jailed, following his reports about the difficulties experienced by Bedouins living in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. In October 2008, State Security Investigations (SSI), a branch of Egypt’s Interior Ministry, arrested Hany Nazir, a blogger allegedly writing on sensitive religious issues, for his critical religious statements. Arrests continued in 2009. On February 6, 2009, the SSI arrested without charge Dia Eddin Gad, a pro-Palestinian blogger and activist, after he referred on his blog to Mubarak as a “Zionist, an agent of Israel, and a loser”. On June 30, 2009, customs officials held blogger Wael Abbas for 13 hours at Cairo Airport, after returning from a conference in Sweden where he criticized the Mubarak regime. On November 11, 2009, Abbas was sentenced in absentia to six months in prison for allegedly damaging a neighbor’s internet line, a development that many believed to be motivated in reality by Abbas’ critical blogging against the government. On July 22, 2009, SSI officials detained three bloggers affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, Magdy Saad, Abd El Rahman Ayyash, and Ahmed Abu Khalil, for one week for their support of detained Muslim Brotherhood members and for their criticism of the trial of these individuals before a military court.
March-April 2010 saw sustained government crackdown against activists affiliated with the National Association for Change, a campaign to support ElBaradei, and the April 6 Movement. On March 2, Ahmed Mustafa, yet another blogger and member of the April 6 group, was brought before a military court for accusing Egypt’s premier military academy with nepotism. Also in March, the SSI arrested Tarek Khedr, an activist gathering signatures for a petition in support of ElBaradei. On April 2, the publisher of ElBaradei and the Dream of a Green Revolution, a book presenting ElBaradei as brining hope for political change to Egypt, Ahmad Mehni, was detained for two days before being released without charge. According to an attorney working for the ElBaradei camp, some 40 activists, involved in the signature campaign and providing other support to the camp, were briefly detained and then released during this time.
In April, security officials also cracked down on a peaceful protest organized by the April 6 Movement, which called for the end of Egypt’s notorious Emergency Law, arresting more than 100 demonstrators and charging 33 protestors with attempting to “overthrown the regime” before releasing them shortly thereafter. Most recently, in June 2010, officials arrested and beat to death an Egyptian businessman and activist, Khaled Said. The event sparked a mass on-line movement, one of the many instances of social mobilization that have cropped up in the country in recent years and contributed to a growing sense of engagement amongst Egypt’s youth. Protests expressing outrage at Said’s death were met with government violence, with 100 demonstrators arrested and others beaten by security officials.
Political opponents, such as Ayman Noor, head of the secular El Ghad party and a candidate in the 2005 presidential election, have regularly been arrested and incarcerated on trumped up charges, motivated by the government’s political interests. In particular, members of the Muslim Brotherhood are habitually in and out of Egyptian jails, often without formal charge or trial. Egyptian journalists have also been detained, harassed, and assaulted by security officials, treatment currently being meted out to foreign journalists stationed in the country and covering on-going demonstrations.
The culture of arrest, detention, beatings, release, and/or imprisonment had been effective for decades in crushing effective political opposition and large-scale calls for reform. This strategy had been so efficient that while some opponents and activists, like Khaled Said, had died in the government’s hands, in recent years the regime has had little need to resort to such tactics.
But that was then. This is now. While many believe that the current detention of activists and journalists indicates that the government will likely use increased violence in the days to come, as history shows, the mere fact that the regime has continued to rely on intimidation is unsurprising. What is revolutionary is the way in which the government’s complex framework of traditional fear tactics has come unraveled and the fact that the only effective repressive mechanism it has left requires high-intensity violence.
A Culture of Fear: The Number One Egyptian Export
Whatever else may be said about the impact and effect of protests in Egypt and Tunisia, it’s fair to say that the particular brand of popular fear, cultivated by the government, has dissolved. Fears of government reprisals, of losing ones job, or the few freedoms one has have kept many in Egypt silent for a long time. Historically, the government fueled culture of fear took on many dimensions, from the actions against activists noted above to the more insidious attempts to silence dissent through the Egyptian legal system to state-sponsored fear mongering against “Islamist” groups within the country.
The Legal Regime of Fear
Since Hosni Mubarak took office as president in 1981 after the assassination of President Anwar Sadat, Egypt has been continuously subject to an Emergency Law (Law No. 162 of 1958); before then, the law had been in effect, on and off, since 1967. For the majority of this time, there has been a decided absence of any “state of emergency” justifying the law’s continued prominence. The government’s promises since 2005 to end the state of emergency and its recent statements to the UN Human Rights Council, describing the law’s application as limited exclusively to cases of drug-dealing and terrorism, reinforce this reality. Nonetheless, as government behavior demonstrates, the law’s predominant purpose has been to quash the regime’s enemies, silence dissent, and otherwise perpetuate a culture of fear within the country.
As human rights critics and others have noted, the legal definition of “terrorism” under Egyptian law has been fluid and broad, including “any ‘threat of intimidation’ with the aim of ‘disturbing the peace or jeopardizing the safety and security of the society.’” In practice, the Egyptian government has regularly used a liberal reading of “terrorism” to apply the Emergency Law against activists deemed to be a “”, activists such as Dia Eddin Gad, Musad Abu Fagr, Hany Nazir, and Ahmed Mustapha.
The Emergency Law permits the quashing of political rallies and public protests, and legalizes the practice of arbitrary detention. Under its provisions, the country’s Interior Minister may detain individuals without charge for 45 days, with the possibility of indefinite renewal. After 30 days, detainees may appeal their detention to the state’s security courts, which can confirm detention or order the person’s release. Trials of detainees occur before security courts, which are packed with military officials, with troubling consequences for individual rights of due process. With an estimated five thousand administrative detainees languishing in Egyptian jails before the recent uprising, organizations such as Human Rights Watch have documented the Egyptian government’s habitual disregard of court decisions ordering the release of detained individuals.
The laws’ provisions permit security officials to search individuals, their homes, and places of business unrestricted by the country’s Criminal Procedure Code. Article 3 of the Emergency Law gives the military the power to monitor newspapers and other publications, and to confiscate and prohibit circulation if necessary. The law, as such, has paved the way for government invasions of personal privacy and security, leaving individuals vulnerable to state intrusion and potential arrest and detention without charge. With the power to infiltrate peoples’ confidential correspondences and telephone calls, the Emergency Law has acted as the legal imprimatur for the Egyptian Big Brother, the blueprint for the government microscope under which so many Egyptians have lived.
The “Islamist Bogeyman”
Attempts to foment fear of Islamist groups within the country have been at the core of the government’s attempts to justify its own continued rule, both on a domestic and international level. This tactic has found the Egyptian government alternately attacking and supporting Islamist groups, in the service of its various interests.
On the one hand, to condone its reauthorization of the Emergency Law, the regime has cited supposed threats form “Islamist terrorists”, such as bombing attacks in the Sinai Peninsula and the recent prosecution of a Hezbollah cell allegedly planning violent acts in the country.
At the same time, throughout its “illustrious” history, the Mubarak regime has expended a great deal of energy crushing all forms of secular opposition parties, while allowing the Muslim Brotherhood, formally banned but unofficially tolerated by the government, limited space for political activity. The Mubarak regime has used these self-engineered realities to present itself as the only viable, non-Islamist alternative to both its own people, as well as to foreign, particularly Western, governments.
This strategic tension has continued during the current uprising. While extending a hand of compromise to the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as other opposition groups, the government earlier accused the Brotherhood and more recently groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah of fomenting the protests.
While some Western observers of the current uprising have taken the government’s bait, the sentiment does not appear to be shared by most demonstrators. As many Egyptian activists have stated through a variety of media, the protestors, which were not organized but have been supported by the Brotherhood after the fact, is representative of all of Egypt, be they Muslim, secular, Christian, or otherwise.
The possible rise of an Islamic state post-Mubarak has not dissuaded protestors from pouring into the streets day after day. And lest one think these protestors may be Muslim Brotherhood supporters, well, they seem to be hiding it well, as participants have reported very few religious chants occurring during the demonstrations. Nor have threats of arrest, detention, and imprisonment (and the possibility of beatings and torture that these often bring) done anything to end the protests. Low intensity fear mongering, long practiced by Egypt and accepted by its Egypt’s Western allies, is effective no longer.
The Egyptian Uprising and the End of Low-Intensity Fear Tactics
Of course, Egypt is no stranger to public demonstrations. From the bread riots of the 1970s to recent protests over the last several years, Egyptians have advocated for their rights and gradually pushed back against the culture of fear that has dominated the countries. Nonetheless, these past events, particularly those occurring over the last several years, have involved a relatively limited segment of the population, representing small pockets of resilience in an environment of general resignation.
Protests over the last days in Egypt have been impressive in both scope and range. While the exact number of participants may be hard to pin down, there is little doubt that the number of protestors has been unprecedented. As the calls for demonstrations continue and the government’s violence against demonstrators continues to escalate, anecdotal reports have spread of Egyptian nationals, motivated by the protestors’ courage in the face of the violence, returning to the country from abroad. According to reports, significant numbers of Egyptians have continued to take to the streets. Meanwhile the death toll has risen steeply and many expect the government’s most massive violent crackdown to be around the corner.
As the last days have demonstrated, the threats of detention and beating have not been enough to dissuade large numbers of protestors from coming to the streets. As the government’s human rights record shows, protestors could hardly have been unaware that their movement could bring detention, arrest, and possible imprisonment upon them. Even before the record breaking demonstrations of January 28 and February 1, 1200 individuals had been detained by the Egyptian security forces during the protests’ early days, a significant number that nonetheless did not quell turnout. For large swaths of the population, the intimidation machine had simply stopped working, as it had for smaller pockets of Egyptian activists over the past several years.
Having appreciated the failure of its low-intensity strategy of intimidation, the government resorted to large-scale violence against protestors on February 2 and 3, unleashing its proxies to attack peaceful demonstrators in and around Tahrir Square in Cairo. The violence has been extreme, with the death toll during these two days conservatively estimated to be 13. For the government, fear of death has become the final form of intimidation at its disposal for use against its opponents.
To be effective in stoking popular fear, however, the death toll will likely need to be significant, placing the government in the position of deciding between its short-term survival and the long-term consequences to its reputation and legitimacy. In the end, the calculation leaves Mubarak and the current regime without a leg to stand on, as massive bloodshed, which may diminish the protests, will fundamentally alter the government’s image, its legitimacy, and its regional and international position. For a country whose existence, credibility and power has depended upon a combination of repressive tactics with low casualties and the support of liberal-leaning Western governments, these options are damning. Egypt’s military, whose pivotal role many have noted, may be the group to determine whether the government’s last chit, the death card, will be played
Recent statements by Egyptian Vice-President Omar Suleiman and Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq, promising to punish those responsible for the deaths of protestors and apologizing for recent clashes, have been interpreted by many as a disingenuous political move calculated to distance the government from the on-the-ground clashes while also signaling the possibility of increased violence in the days ahead. At the same time, these statements appear also to be a response to the international condemnation the government has received for the violence of the last days. With its reputation already on the line, the political price of playing its last card in the deck of repressive strategies may be too high. If it fails to do this, protests will likely continue. Should it chose to move ahead and unleash massive bloodshed, any domestic legitimacy will be over and its international reputation and position destroyed. However they play it, the Egyptian government the world has known for last three decades appears to be at its end.