Egypt's interim military rulers are increasingly repressing civil rights, sparking an outcry from Egyptians who say that the generals who promised to lead a transition to democracy have instead become even more restrictive than former President Hosni Mubarak.
After hundreds of protesters attacked the Israeli embassy in Cairo on Friday night, the government broadened the country's emergency law to allow the Ministry of Interior to indefinitely detain or send to military court citizens who engaged in strikes, "thuggery," or "deliberately publishing false news, statements, or rumors."
“This is classic Mubarak-think: The knee-jerk reaction to deal with any security problem is to give more powers to the Ministry of Interior,” says Heba Morayef, a Cairo-based researcher for Human Rights Watch.
The repeal of the law, which Mr. Mubarak used as a blunt instrument of repression throughout his 30-year rule, had been a key demand of the revolution, and the military council had promised in March that it would lift the law by this month.
On Sunday, police operating under the auspices of the Ministry of the Interior raided the offices of satellite TV network Al Jazeera, further raising fears of a crackdown on media and expression.
Criticism from across the political spectrum
Significantly, the military council’s actions have been met with criticism from across the Egyptian spectrum, including groups that had previously been reluctant to speak against the military, showing growing concern with the council’s increasing turn toward Mubarak-era repression. Many are now increasingly pinning their hopes on coming elections as the only way to reverse the authoritarian trend.
Parliamentary elections, originally scheduled for this month, are now tentatively planned for November. But the military council will stay in power until a new president has been elected, and that vote has not yet been scheduled.
The Muslim Brotherhood, one of the most influential political parties heading into the elections and one that has previously largely refrained from criticizing the military, released a statement Sunday chastising the military council for a lack of leadership that it said led to the embassy attack, and demanding a timeline for transition to civilian rule.
Last month, Israeli security forces killed six Egyptian border guards while reportedly pursuing gunmen who had launched an attack near the border that killed eight Israelis. Despite Egyptian popular outrage, the military council refused to withdraw Egypt’s ambassador to Israel. Many political parties and movements, including the Brotherhood, are now blaming the council for not acting, allowing anger to overflow into the embassy attack.
Walid Shalaby, a spokesman for the Brotherhood, told the Monitor today that the group also rejected the expansion of the emergency law, saying it was uncalled for. “We are against thuggery, we are against breaking the law,” he said. “But infractions should be dealt with under the normal criminal laws which don’t restrict freedom. We want progress toward security and freedom.”
The emergency law was used widely under Mubarak to suppress civil rights. It forbade unauthorized gatherings and allowed long-term detention without trial. In 2010, Mubarak pledged to use the law only in cases of terrorism and drug trafficking, but his regime violated that promise.
Since the uprising brought the military to power, the generals have not used the law extensively, relying instead on the Military Code of Justice for the authority to try 12,000 civilians in military tribunals. It has used the emergency law in several cases, including referring suspects of sectarian violence to state security courts. But indefinite detentions under the law had ceased.
Riot police need more restraint, not more power
Ms. Morayef says the appropriate response to the events of last week would have been twofold: First, realizing the urgent need for reform of the riot police, which are notorious for using excessive force to quell protests, leading to crises. In the clashes between police and protesters at the embassy Friday night, three people were killed and more than 1,000 wounded, according to the Health Ministry.
Second, says Morayef, the military should be looking into why the embassy attack was allowed to happen in the first place. Witnesses say security forces did not intervene until protesters had already breached the embassy.
“What you need to be doing is looking at your policing, as opposed to doing the exact opposite and giving more discretionary powers to the police force, which already abuses the power it has,” she says.
The military council’s move instead toward a crackdown and a revival of the emergency law is an echo of how Mubarak dealt with crises. Hisham Kassem, an independent publisher, says the military council’s response is “nervous, jittery.” They are strained from the pressure of recent demonstrations and protests, he says. Those who speak with council members regularly say they, like Mubarak, know no other way to deal with challenges than to throw security forces at them and crack down hard.
Al Jazeera fighting back
The closing of the Al Jazeera affiliate, too, is a return to Mubarak’s tactics. Authorities accused the channel of operating without a license. But Islam Lotfy, a lawyer who is working on behalf of the channel in the current case, said the affiliate applied for the proper licenses four months ago, and authorities told the channel to continue broadcasting while the paperwork went through.
The way the police raided the office – barging in without a warrant, bringing 21 officers from different branches of police and National Security, and arresting a technician – was the same way it would have been done last year under the Mubarak regime, says Mr. Lotfy.
He sees it as an attempt at intimidation aimed not only at the television channel but also at other media. But the channel is fighting back with a lawsuit. “Now they are manipulating us. But we are going to pursue them, to force them to announce if they will give us permission [to broadcast]. And if not, they will have to give justification for this refusal,” he says.