Egyptian authorities detained a 15-year-old boy last month, reportedly for bringing to school a ruler stamped with the logo used by Islamist protesters. Local media reported last week that prosecutors also issued an arrest warrant for the boy's father.
That a teenager could be detained for his school supplies illustrates the depth of the crackdown on dissent since the July military coup, with no act of rebellion considered too unthreatening to be overlooked. More than five months after the Egyptian military ousted former President Mohamed Morsi and began targeting his supporters, thousands of people are still detained, many of them simply for participating in protests.
Among them are many leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood. Five former aides of Mr. Morsi have also disappeared – held in undisclosed locations without government acknowledgement of their detentions. Thousands of others – Muslim Brotherhood members, Islamist protesters, prominent non-Islamist activists — have been detained, many at protests. Lawyers and human rights advocates say many are held for months, their detention orders repeatedly renewed, without evidence they committed a crime.
The detention of thousands is a return to methods of the past. President Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted after a popular uprising in 2011, often used the tactic to silence political opponents, activists, and the Brotherhood. Khalil Al Anani, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, says the current government is even surpassing Mubarak’s measures.
“It’s a very blatant aggressive policy against those who oppose the government,” he says. “Now they’re trying to silence anyone who might criticize the situation or the new arrangement since July 3.”
The number of people arrested and held in the months following the coup is disputed. Lawyers for the Muslim Brotherhood, whose members and supporters make up a significant number of the detainees, say around 20,000 people are being held. But rights activists and lawyers who work to defend protesters say the number is lower, with estimates ranging between 3,500 and 10,000.
In part, the confusion stems from the fact that the arrests and some releases have taken place over a span of five months, all over the country and at such a scale that it has been difficult for one organization to keep a tally. Some rights organizations don't have partners working in every province to keep track of those arrested, or the numbers released. The Brotherhood, a grassroots organization, does have the capacity to track arrests throughout Egypt, but rights advocates charge the organization has inflated the number.
In detention, no rights
A September Amnesty International report said that at least 2,400 people were being held, with many deprived of basic legal rights like access to lawyers and family.
Protesters and activists were also arrested and detained under Morsi, a former Muslim Brotherhood leader and Egypt's first freely elected president. But when the army ousted Morsi following massive protests against him, the pace of arrests picked up. More than 400 people were detained in Cairo on Aug. 14 alone, when security forces stormed two pro-Morsi protest camps, killing more than 600 people.
The crackdown on the group has been extensive. While Mubarak detained Brotherhood members but tolerated the group, the current government has even arrested the top leader and family members of detained high-level members.
“It seems to me that the current regime is not willing to give any room for the Brotherhood to come back to political life anytime soon. That’s why they use everything to crush them,” Mr. Anani says. “It’s a policy that seeks to eradicate the Muslim Brotherhood and put them in disarray or to paralyze them totally. And to a large extent this policy is succeeding so far.”
But not all the detainees are Islamists or Morsi supporters. In recent months, the government has widened its sweep to include non-Islamist voices of dissent in Egypt. A recent wave of student demonstrations sweeping Egyptian universities has led to the arrest of scores of students. Journalists are also being held – Sherif Mansour, of the Committee to Protect Journalists, says that as of Dec. 1, at least five journalists were behind bars because of their work.
Some in the Muslim Brotherhood accuse rights activists and organizations of championing the cases of these non-Islamist detainees while ignoring rights violations against Islamists.
“Unfortunately, the human rights organizations don't look at these cases because of a difference in ideology with the Islamists, and this is something dangerous,” says Aly Kamel, a Brotherhood lawyer working on the cases of detainees.
Ragia Omran, a veteran rights activist and member of the Front to Defend Egyptian protesters, says lawyers from the front have been repeatedly rebuffed by Brotherhood lawyers when they attempt to help protesters arrested at Islamist rallies.
Some of the detained have been beaten and tortured in detention. Mr. Kamel says authorities have repeatedly denied them access to lawyers of their own choosing, and have interrogated them without their lawyers present. In the weeks after the Aug. 14 breakup of the two protest camps, when the government imposed emergency law and a curfew, detainees were often interrogated after curfew, and no allowances were made for lawyers to travel to their clients. Kamel also says many lawyers were arrested after they began working on the cases.
Under Mubarak, many Egyptians were detained arbitrarily without charge, a tactic made possible by the emergency law that was in effect throughout most of his nearly three decades as president. That emergency law is no longer in effect, so pretrial detention in criminal cases can only last six months before the prosecutor must refer the case to court or drop the charges.
If the case is referred to court, the accused can be held for a total of two years without being convicted. In September, interim President Adly Mansour amended Egyptian law to remove the two-year-detention cap at the retrial stage for crimes that carry the death penalty or life imprisonment.
A few cases have been brought swiftly to court, though most are still in pretrial detention. Morsi and top Brotherhood leaders are facing trials. Twelve students at Al Azhar University were sentenced to 17 years in prison last month after protests at the university turned violent. This month, a court reduced the sentence of 21 women and girls who were arrested while protesting the military-backed government, allowing them to be released. According to Human Rights Watch, there was no evidence in the court's ruling that the women and girls had committed the crimes they were accused of.
When asked about detainees at a recent briefing, Badr Abdel Aty, a spokesman for Egypt’s foreign ministry, said that the court’s ruling to release the Alexandria women showed the judiciary is independent and was following due process.
Mr. Kamel says the Alexandria case is an example of the flimsy evidence against most detainees.
“They can't take these cases to court because there is no evidence,” he says. “It's better for them to extend the detention.”
That is exactly what Mosa'ab Elshamy fears for his brother. A correspondent for Al Jazeera, Abdullah Elshamy spent nearly six weeks covering the pro-Morsi sit-in at Rabaa Al Adaweya square in Cairo. He was arrested while working on Aug. 14 when security forces dispersed the protest. It was nearly three weeks before his family was allowed to visit Abdullah, says Mr. Elshamy, who also works as a photojournalist.
Initially, prison visits would last only “minutes.” Then he says, conditions improved – meaning the family got 10 or 20 minutes to visit instead of five.
Like thousands of others, Abdullah's case has not been referred to a court. The accusations against him include inciting violence and murder and attacking police officers. While the charges sound serious, Elshamy says, “With zero evidence it just shows how ridiculous the accusations are, rather than how serious this might be.”
Given the lack of evidence that Abdullah was doing anything other than his job as a journalist, Elshamy says he's not overly worried his brother will be tried and convicted. What he is worried about, he says, is that Abdullah will simply be detained for months on end.
Unlike Abdullah, who was swept up in a mass arrest at a protest site, Ahmed El Sarawi was targeted. A surgeon who teaches at Cairo University and works at the National Cancer Institute, as well as a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Dr. Sarawi helped run a field hospital for protesters at the pro-Morsi sit-in at Nahda Square. In early September, police arrested him at his home.
His brother, Hamza El Sarawi, says the doctor is charged with forming a gang to rob luxury homes, and terrorizing his neighbors.
“This is not just the brutal state, but the funny state,” says Mr. Sarawi, making light of the charges he views as ludicrous.
Sarawi, who is a spokesman for the Brotherhood-led Anti-Coup Alliance, says he does not expect his brother to be released. Because the doctor was arrested at his home, rather than being scooped up randomly at a protest, he says he believes the government intends to prosecute his brother.
“I think this is going to be a hopeless case,” he says. “But for a state to imprison such a professional with these two funny accusations, this is a very fragile system that's going to collapse very soon.”