Egyptians are growing increasingly wary of what they see as a growing attempt by remnants of former president Hosni Mubarak’s regime to subvert their revolution by sowing chaos and violence in society.
They call it a counterrevolution, and they see it in attacks by thugs on peaceful protesters and in neighborhoods throughout Cairo and even in the sectarian strife that has recently flared up between Christians and Muslims. Egypt’s new Prime Minister Essam Sharaf, in an interview on Egyptian television Wednesday night, warned of a systematic campaign to undermine security in Egypt.
They blame it on members of the state security service, wealthy businessmen, and members of Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party, who do not want to see the revolution that robbed them of power succeed. It evokes the violence that came after Tunisia's revolution, where young men were said to be paid to attack people and property.
But even as citizens accuse those connected with the former president of subverting the revolution, the very institution in charge of transitioning to a more democratic Egypt – the Army – has been acting quite unrevolutionary itself. Replicating Mubarak-era policies, the Army has severely beaten protesters on at least two occasions in the past week, and since Jan. 28 has been trying civilian protesters in military courts, denying them basic rights.
During February, thousands of civilian protesters were arrested, denied civilian lawyers or even the chance to telephone their families, given trials as short as five minutes, and sentenced to prison, says Adel Ramadan, a lawyer with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. The convictions, often coming only three days after arrest, range from six months to 15 years and cannot be appealed.
“From a human rights perspective, we see the submission of civilians to a military justice system as one of the most problematic things to emerge in this period of time,” says Priyanka Motaparthy of Human Rights Watch (HRW) in Cairo. “These are civilian protesters, they're being interrogated in the presence of military lawyers that the military prosecution has appointed. They're not being given access to civilian lawyers.… Once they've been sentenced, there's no appeals process.”
Thugs out in force again
One of the hallmarks of the security apparatus during the Mubarak era was its use of plainclothes thugs against protesters. Such attackers were unleashed upon peaceful demonstrators during the revolution on Feb. 2, in what was one of the bloodiest days of fighting.
Aggressive men armed with sticks have been making regular appearances lately, as well. Tuesday night and Wednesday around noon, groups of armed men set upon the hundreds of protesters still camped in the center of Tahrir Square, throwing rocks at them. They also attacked a protest in front of a downtown state security building Sunday, and have been reported in other neighborhoods. Because of the nature of the situation, it's difficult to ascertain exactly who they are.
But Emad Gad, an analyst at the state-funded Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, says state security officers are working with corrupt businessmen and members of the NDP to sow chaos by sending thugs out to attack civilians. He said the same elements were also trying to sow religious strife.
"They are using some criminals, and we know very well that these criminals were part of the plan of state security in order to harm the security of the population. ... The NDP and some businessmen always used to use them in election campaigns, and they are responsible for them," he says. "They are trying to harm the security and now they are playing with the religious issues in order to push Egypt toward civil war."
On March 4, a Muslim crowd torched a church in a village south of Cairo. Two days ago, Christians protesting the act say they were attacked by a Muslim crowd. Thirteen people were killed and more than 140 wounded.
There is little evidence that the episode was incited by thugs, and violence against Christians was common in Egypt before the revolution. Yet presidential candidate and head of the Arab League Amr Moussa said Thursday that suspicious elements were inciting sectarian strife.
Army and thugs work together in Tahrir Square
Mr. Sharaf’s cabinet said on Wednesday it would stand against attempts at counterrevolution, and said its priority is ensuring security in Egypt.
The prime minister ordered the police force, which was withdrawn on Jan. 28 and has not been fully deployed since, back out on the streets in force. The cabinet is also said to be discussing a new law that would levy severe penalties on the “thugs” who attack civilians. The use of such plainclothes attackers is particularly dangerous because demonstrators can't identify them and bring them to justice, says Ms. Motaparthy of HRW.
“When plainclothes people who have no known affiliation attack people, it's very difficult to hold anyone accountable for what happened,” she says.
Some Egyptians were astonished Wednesday afternoon in Tahrir Square to see the thugs that are the target of the proposed law working together with the Army to clear the square of protesters.
“The Army and thugs attacked the sit-in and violently removed tents, and attacked the protesters with sticks, together, hand in hand,” says Salma, a protester who was sitting outside her tent at the time. “They came together, and they were doing this together.”
The young woman, who did not want to give her last name, said she saw hundreds of protesters taken into the nearby Egyptian museum and beaten. Her friend, Ramy Essam, who became well-known during the revolution for writing and playing songs on his guitar in the square, was severely beaten by Army soldiers for three to four hours before being released. The soldiers stripped his clothes off, beat him with metal bars, kicked him with their boots, shocked him with a tazer, and cut off his hair, she said. He is now recovering in the hospital.
Many severely beaten, 190 still detained
But 190 people are still being held. They were transferred to a military detention center and are being held without access to their laywers, says Motaparthy. Many of them were also severely beaten. It’s unclear whether they will be released, like the 27 protesters who were detained at the state security building Sunday and released a day later, or whether they will face military trials.
Those arrested Sunday also reported being severely beaten.
One man, who asked that his name be withheld for his own protection, said Army soldiers grabbed him and took him inside the state security building. There, men without uniforms used his T-shirt to blindfold him, he says, and then brutally beat him for two hours. His back is covered with marks from being hit with metal objects, and he has horrible bruising on his legs and thighs.
Such abuse is what characterized the security apparatus under Mubarak, and is part of what Egyptians fought to rid themselves of in the revolution. “This is proof for me that the Army is oppressive just like the police and everyone else,” says Salma.