Mohamed Omar was taking supplies to a field hospital treating opposition protesters injured in deadly clashes with supporters of President Mohamed Morsi last week when suddenly the front line shifted. The president's supporters surrounded and grabbed him.
"They began beating me with sticks, knocking my face with their fists, and hitting me with metal on my head," he says. The crowd took his wallet, phone, car keys, and identity card, and continued beating him as they dragged him toward the presidential palace nearby. "People were beating me along the way, asking me 'why are you protesting the president?', accusing me of being an enemy of the country, saying I am an enemy of the president."
Once near the walls of the palace, they bound his hands, and then interrogated him, demanding to know which Egyptian opposition leader had paid him to protest. "Are you a dog of Hamdeen Sabbahi or are you a dog of Amr Moussa or of ElBaradei?" he remembers them asking.
Along with 48 others, he was held, bloodied and bound, outside the gates of the presidential palace by members and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood for around 15 hours, until he was turned over to police.
Controversy is now growing over what happened in the wake of those deadly clashes, which killed 11 people, most of whom appear to have been Muslim Brotherhood members or supporters. In an address shortly after they were handed to the police, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi echoed the Brotherhood narrative of events, claiming confessions of paid thugs, and did not call for an investigation of the detentions and abuse. Some Egyptians say the events reinforce the growing perception that the president is too close to the Brotherhood, and is losing his ability to be a leader for all Egyptians.
Public prosecutor's role
Human Rights Watch released a statement yesterday calling on Egypt's public prosecutor to investigate the detentions and beatings, and the possible links to authorities.
The president must have been aware of what was happening for 15 hours outside the gates of his palace, where Ministry of Interior officials were present and aware of the detentions and abuse, says Heba Morayef, Egypt director for Human Rights Watch. "Yet in his speech he not only made no reference to this, but actually spoke out against people who were at that point were still being investigated and therefore covered by the presumption of innocence," she says.
His actions, particularly regarding the role of the public prosecutor, have dangerous implications, she says. "It puts us in an extremely dangerous position. Because if the public prosecutor is now seen as a pro-Morsi, politicized figure, then that further destroys what little respect there is left for these institutions as being the objective, rule-of-law-applying bodies in the country."
The prosecutor's role in events has also become controversial. The president appointed the public prosecutor, Talaat Abdallah, as part of a sweeping decree that sacked the Mubarak-era prosecutor, sidelined the judiciary, and made his own powers immune to judicial review. Mr. Abdallah today reversed a decision to transfer the local prosecutor who ordered the release of the prisoners detained by Muslim Brotherhood supporters. Egyptian daily Al Masry Al Youm reported the local prosecutor accused Abdallah of ordering his transfer as a punitive measure after he refused Abdallah's pressure to charge some of the protesters with crimes.
Brothers called up
The clashes last week were some of the deadliest this year. Protesters against the president had gathered at his presidential palace on Dec. 4 to protest his decision to grant himself immunity from judicial review, and to call a quick referendum on a controversial draft constitution. Some stayed overnight, camping out beside the palace.
On Dec. 5, Muslim Brotherhood leaders called on their followers to march to the presidential palace. Essam El Erian, the deputy chief of the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, called on members to go to the palace, implying that if police would not protect it, FJP and Brotherhood members would do so themselves. "If state agencies are weak and still damaged by the wounds of the past, the people can impose their will and protect legitimacy. Members of the FJP will be on the frontline, God-willing," he posted on his public Facebook page.
The president's supporters pushed out the protesters who had camped beside the palace, and dismantled their tents. Clashes between the two sides began that afternoon.
Brotherhood adviser Gehad al Haddad, who was present during the clashes, says during the night there was a vicious attack on the president's supporters carried out by "thugs" armed with guns, and that police did nothing to stop the violence. HRW says in its report that both sides were armed. The Brotherhood says all of the 11 deaths were either Brotherhood members or people who were on the Brotherhood side of the clashes, though the opposition disputes that.
During the clashes, Brotherhood members and supporters began capturing protesters from the other side. According to Mr. Haddad, they were capturing the armed thugs who had attacked them. Multiple protesters said they were apprehended by the president's supporters, who beat them, bound them, and then detained 49 of them in an area in front of the gate to the presidential palace, where they interrogated them. The questions aimed at extracting confessions of being paid by opposition leaders to attack the Brotherhood.
Ordeal of those nabbed
Ramy Sabry, a pharmacist, says he was at the protest to provide medical aid to those hurt in the fighting. He was on the opposition side of the chaotic clashes around 1 a.m. on the morning of Dec 6. when a group of Morsi supporters captured him. They grabbed him and pushed him all the way to the presidential palace, which took about 10 minutes, he says.
"On the way, I was attacked by everything they carried. Some had wooden sticks, some metal rods, someone had a knife because I have a cut on my face. They beat me the entire way there until I reached the palace. Then they tied me up."
Mr. Sabry says there were around 10 or 15 other captured protesters in an area cordoned off by riot police when he arrived, but their numbers swelled to 49 by the afternoon. "They tried to make me confess I got money from ElBaradei or Hamdeen to attack them and the palace," he says, referring to two opposition leaders and former presidential candidates who joined an opposition coalition against the president's recent moves. "I insisted that I am not getting any money. I am here because I am against the constitutional decree, and I have the right to protest."
When he would not confess, they left him and tried the same tactics on the other bound protesters, slapping them and kicking them while questioning them, he says. Several of those detained were children, he says. After around ten hours, his captors agreed to tie his hands in front of his body instead of behind his back, because he was in great pain, he says
Sabry described those doing the interrogations as Freedom and Justice Party members, and says he recognized two of them and gave their names. He says one of them talked about a phone call with Mohamed El Beltagi, a prominent member of the party. In a separate interview, Omar also described overhearing one of the men who held him on the phone with Mr. Beltagi.
Beltagi could not be reached for comment.
Video footage confirms what the protesters describe, and shows handcuffed and bloodied protesters being interrogated. All the 49 who were held outside the presidential palace were handed over to police and prosecutors in the late afternoon of Dec. 6, joining dozens of others who had been handed over to police by the president's supporters. By Saturday, 137 had been released for lack of evidence, while four remained in custody.
According to the HRW report, Morsi's prerecorded speech, in which he mentions confessions, was broadcast as the protesters were still being questioned by prosecutors, and lawyers present said none of them confessed in those interviews. In his speech, the president said "Sadly, some of those arrested have work and communication ties to political forces. And some of those using weapons were hired to do so, in exchange for a payment of money. This is what the investigations revealed, based on their confessions."
HRW urged the prosecutor to examine possible links between the detentions and the authorities. The report also noted a statement made by the Brotherhood's lawyer, on Dec. 6, saying "83 thugs were arrested with money, knives, and Molotov cocktails.… They admitted causing riots and killing and injuring hundreds of [the president'] supporters…. We have clear-cut and documented evidence that proves major politicians and media figures incited the violence."
The Information Minister, a Brotherhood member, also repeated the accusations in the state daily Al Ahram, citing "documents and evidence confiscated from dozens of thugs in front of the presidential palace."
Haddad says that the president's supporters were catching armed thugs and handing them over to police, amid a vicious attack on the Brotherhood members and supporters that he says killed ten of them. "I saw people being taken from the front lines. They were attackers. They had weapons," he says. Brotherhood members often intervened to stop beatings of those caught, he says.
He defends the Brotherhood's decision to send its followers to the palace, a call observers predicted would end in violence.
"At the end of the day this was a carefully designed coup by a few thugs that were hired by previous members of the Mubarak regime," says Haddad, adding that prominent members of the opposition are connected to the attacks as well. He could not provide evidence to back up his accusations.
"The Muslim Brotherhood came down as a human shield to prevent a bloodier confrontation between the presidential guard and the rest of the supporters," says Haddard. He says the Brotherhood followers had to protect the palace, because the police, loyal to Mubarak's regime and hostile to the Brotherhood, would not do so. "The objective of the Muslim Brotherhood was to protect the sovereignty of the state against an organized coup led by former Mubarak cronies."
Protesters who were detained and beaten say the episode makes them feel Morsi is Brotherhood president, not a leader of all Egyptians. When Morsi won the presidential elections, Omar told his friends that they should give him a chance to prove himself for a year. If he proved to be a good president, he would support him, he says.
But from the moment the president addressed his supporters in front of his palace after his recent decree, instead of giving an address to all Egyptians on television, Omar began to feel the president was not his president, he says. After what happened to him last week, he's more determined than ever to oppose Morsi. "I will not surrender, I will not give up," he says.