Freedom on the march, Egypt edition

A light sentence for the police killers of Khaled Said, another torture death in detention, and a prominent and blogger and activist arrested, all in the new Egypt.

By , Staff writer

It's been a bad week for Egypt's revolutionaries. First, two policemen who beat Khaled Said to death last year – an event that spurred the online activism that set the stage for Egypt's popular uprising in January – were given just seven-year sentences for the crime.

The two junior policemen appeared to have attacked Said in retaliation for his posting video evidence of drug dealing at Alexandria's Sidi Gabr police station. Their superior at the station, which had been involved in other murder and torture incidents, was not tried.

Said – handsome, idealistic, from a well-to-do family – came to symbolize the excesses of former President Hosni Mubarak's unaccountable police state and galvanized the protests that drove him from power. But though Mr. Mubarak is gone, the police state, the powerful military hierarchy, and the Emergency Law that allows security officials a free hand in acting against citizens, all remain. To many activists and average Egyptians, the sentences were a reminder that little had changed.

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Then last Thursday came news of a torture death at the hands of guards at Tora Prison – notorious under Mubarak as a place where both political prisoners and common prisoners were subjected to torture and filthy conditions. The victim, Essam Atta, was serving a short sentence for squatting in an apartment, though the details of his alleged crime are murky. Egypt's Al Ahram reported he'd been given a two-year sentence by a military court on Feb. 25, shortly after Mubarak was ousted, and that guards had found him with a cell phone, against prison rules. They beat him, sodomized him with a hose, and also forced a hose down his throat, through which they poured soapy water.

On Friday, a public funeral was held at Tahrir Square – the heart of the original uprising – with thousands in attendance, among them Khaled Said's mother, who embraced Atta's family.

Then came the arrest of Alaa Abdel Fatah, a blogger and activist who's been on the front lines of efforts to oust Mubarak since their first tentative beginnings in 2005. He was one of the young pioneers of digital activism, using the Internet to spread news and videos that state-controlled media wouldn't touch. He helped organize overnight demonstrations and protests that attracted a few diehards that prefigured the mass protests that would erupt early this year, chipping away at the layers of fear that kept Egyptians from complaining about their military rulers.

In 2006, he was jailed for joining a protest complaining about the sacking of two judges (who had, accurately, described Egypt's parliamentary elections as riddled with fraud in favor of Mubarak's ruling party).

As of Sunday he's back in jail, under the authority of Mubarak's Emergency Law, on charges that go beyond spurious. That he was "inciting violence" against Egypt's military. How? He complained about the military's behavior earlier this month, when soldiers using rifles and their armored cars as weapons killed 17 Coptic Christians, at an angry protest in front of the State Media and Television building. The protest was over what Copts say is a lack of protection for churches from the country's armed forces.

That night included false claims on state television that armed Copts were attacking the military and even a call for Egyptians to come out and protect the army, further stirring Egypt's sectarian pot. The government blamed unspecified outsiders for the violence.

There have been more than 10,000 civilians tried in military courts since Mubarak fell, Egyptian rights groups say, and Mr. Abdel Fatah is just the latest. But his profile among activists and the prominence of his family (as well as the death of Mina Daniel, a well-known Coptic activist, at the hands of the military the night of the protest) is getting a high degree of attention. A protest march of at least a thousand was held demanding his release tonight.

All of this is a sobering reminder of how much power the military and security services retain, and how intolerant they are of public criticism. Tunisia may have just held a fairly clean post-Ben Ali election, but there are worrying signs in arrests like Abdel Fatah's that the Egyptian military is going to use its power to try to sway the outcome of Egyptian elections, with a parliamentary poll currently scheduled to begin on Nov. 28.

The regime that Egypt's activists fought to remove in January and February remains very much in place, absent the longstanding man at the top.

Follow Dan Murphy on Twitter.

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