Division, Distrust and Despair – Egypt Votes On a New Constitution

Egyptian polling place

Egyptians line up outside a polling station in Mahalla on 15 December to vote in the referendum on a new Constitution. © Amnesty International

By Diana Eltahawy, Amnesty International’s North Africa Researcher

Arriving in Cairo a few days before the constitutional referendum held on Saturday, 15 December, I couldn’t remember a more bitterly divided and polarized Egypt.

During my last visit to the country as part of an Amnesty International delegation to document human rights violations committed during the 18 days of the “25 January Revolution”, there was a palpable sense of unity among protesters despite the suffering and violence.

Egyptians from all walks of life – women and men, Christians and Muslims, young and old, liberal and Islamist, affluent and poor – stood together against the government and its tactics to crush the uprising. They put aside their political, religious and ideological differences to fight for a common cause, and they were successful.

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Army Out of the Barracks, Back On the Streets

The following post is from Amnesty researchers who are currently in Egypt monitoring and documenting the situation there.

Protestors on a tank in Cairo, Egypt

Protestors on a tank in Cairo ©Amnesty International

President Mohamed Morsi decision to give the army new policing powers has raised new concerns about Egypt’s future, raked up painful memories of the past.

In protests around the Presidential Palace on Friday, we saw tanks and armoured vehicles belonging to the Presidential Guard parked in the streets.

Protesters were climbing on them and taking pictures. A few fearless parents even let their children climb on them, posing with the soldiers.

The scenes were eerily reminiscent of the days after the “25 January Revolution,” when many welcomed the army on the streets after the 18 days of mass protests that ended the rule of Hosni Mubarak.

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The Mubarak Trial that Wasn’t

The June 2 verdict in the trial of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak only confirmed what many Egyptian activists feared all along: The trial, while proving that the former leader was not above the law, was never going to be about truth and accountability.

There wasn’t much rejoicing in Cairo, even though the former president was sentenced to life in prison.  The trial itself was a desultory affair, with the judge claiming that prosecutors failed to present significant evidence tying the former president to attacks by security forces and Egyptian police that led to around 840 deaths and thousands of injuries during the 2011 uprisings.

Rather than serve the nation's deep need for truth, the trial denied full justice to the thousands of Egyptian victims and family members.

Rather than serve the nation’s deep need for truth, the trial denied full justice to the thousands of Egyptian victims and family members.  The day after the verdict was announced, all of Cairo was talking about expectations that it would be overturned on appeal.

Amnesty welcomed the trial of Mubarak and others for their role in the killing of protesters which began in January 2011. However, the trial and verdict have left the families of those killed, as well as those injured in the protests, in the dark about the full truth of what happened to their loved ones and it failed to deliver full justice.

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Is Egypt’s “State of Emergency” Finally Over?

egyptian protester run tear gas

A masked Egyptian protester runs after picking up a tear gas canister fired by riot police during clashes near the interior ministry in Cairo on February 4, 2012. (Photo KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images)

Last night at midnight, Egypt’s 31-year-old “Emergency Law” came to an end.  The law gave Egypt’s police and security forces widespread powers to arrest and detain Egyptian civilians.

Under Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, thousands of people experienced torture and other human rights abuses.  So far, government accountability for these violations has been almost nonexistent.

Egyptians may get the first steps towards accountability tomorrow, when a verdict is expected in the trial of Mubarak on charges of killing protesters during the “January 25 Revolution” last year. Some 840 protesters were killed and more than 6000 injured during the uprising that forced Mubarak to step down in February 2011.  But while significant, this trial does not delve into the human rights abuses under Mubarak’s rule for the three decades prior to the revolution. SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

5 Countries Where Your Online Comments Could Land You in Jail

free jabbar savalan facebook page

When you log onto Facebook, you might expect to hear from long-lost friends or to see pictures from the latest family reunion. Maybe you follow Amnesty on Facebook or Twitter, read and comment on this blog, or keep a blog yourself.

But when you log off at the end of the day, you probably don’t expect the police to come knocking on your door. For people in some countries, that’s exactly what can happen. A 2011 study by Freedom House examining 37 countries found that 23 of them had arrested a blogger or internet user for their online posts. These encroachments on internet freedom – regardless of laws – come at a time of explosive growth in the number of internet users worldwide. Governments are clearly terrified because they know that information is power.

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Hosni Mubarak Faces the Judge; Egypt Faces a New Future

Mubarak and other former senior officials face murder charges

Mubarak and other former senior officials face murder charges © AP GraphicsBank

The legal proceedings against former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak opened without drama today.

But for the family members of those killed in the Jan. 25 uprising, the sight of the former president in a criminal court docket was deeply emotional.

Today’s proceedings were straightforward, with Mubarak entering a “not guilty” plea and lawyers from both sides presenting statements; the trial won’t reconvene until Aug. 15.

But during the session, there was Mubarak, lying in a special bed inside the cage for Egyptian criminal defendants.  While he was lying in the bed, many observers indicated his health looked pretty strong, belying pre-trial reports coming from his camp that he was near death.

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Egypt Must Investigate Security Forces Crimes

Rights defender Musaad Abu Fagr was held in SSI detention for years © Amnesty International

One of the first acts taken by Hosni Mubarak when he became Egyptian president in 1981 was to release numerous political prisoners.  Amnesty International applauded him but called on the new president to rein in Egyptian security forces and to dismantle the system of administrative detention.

Thirty years later, as Mubarak himself faces criminal charges in Egypt, Amnesty International renews its old call to rein in the security forces and to end the crippling extrajudicial legal system that facilitates torture, punishes political activists and ordinary Egyptians alike and has muzzled a once-vibrant civil society for decades.

In a damning report released April 20, Time for Justice: Egypt’s Corrosive System of Detention, Amnesty International calls for an independent inquiry into human rights abuses committed by the much feared State Security Investigations Service (SSI).

This is a moment for fundamental change. It demands immediate concrete steps from the authorities so that those responsible for serious human rights violations are held to account.  Egyptians must see justice done for the human rights abuses of the past.

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The New Face of Egypt

By the Amnesty International team in Cairo.

A child wrapped in an Egyptian flag in Tahrir Square on 11 February ©Sarah Carr

A child wrapped in an Egyptian flag in Tahrir Square on 11 February ©Sarah Carr

Describing in words the atmosphere in Tahrir Square on the evening of Hosni Mubarak’s resignation after 30 years in power would never do it justice.

It was a bit like Cairo itself – you cannot understand it unless you have lived it, felt it, smelt it and drank chlorine-filled water from its tap.

All we can say is that it was a great privilege to be there for this momentous historical occasion.

We can project, years from now, our children or grandchildren rolling their eyes when we repeat, perhaps with a fleeting look of nostalgia or tears in our eyes: “I was there, in the sea of people from all ages, social classes, political backgrounds: Muslim and Coptic, men and women, rich and poor, veiled and unveiled, feeling part of a whole new Egypt that was being reborn.”

In fact, to navigate across the square one needed to follow the right current of people if one hoped to reach friends with whom to share the once-in-a-lifetime experience.

If not, people would scream “mabrouk [congratulations]” to each other over the phone in disbelief and with hysterical laughter.

We came from a generation, like more than a third of all Egyptians, for whom Hosni Mubarak as President was a natural, permanent state of affairs – as engrained in our psyche as the national anthem we had to sing in school every morning.

His fall as a result of a popular uprising was something many dared to dream of, but never quite believed, even after the ousting of Tunisia’s President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali less than a month ago.

We are used to our leaders either dying of natural causes, being overthrown in palace coups or being assassinated.

People’s sense of achievement and pride in being able to take control of Egypt’s future reverberated across the square. “Put your head up high, you are Egyptian,” was sung over and over again and was complimented by laughter, ululations, songs of praise, drums and the waving of Egyptian flags. SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

Egyptian Protests Day 3: Next Steps

Amid the third day of protests in Egypt, casualties and detentions are increasing: Today the brunt seems to be in the Suez region where Twitter reports indicate live ammo is being used by security forces.

Detentions over the three days now top over 1,000, according to Egyptian activists groups.  The arrested and injured include reporters both for Egyptian and Western media.

The Mubarak regime is still talking as strongly as it did three days ago, but among the activists in the Egyptian street there is one key consensus: The fear is gone.

There have been large demonstrations in Egypt before.  This was not the Muslim Brothers, despite the government’s efforts to strike fear in the West by blaming the protests on them.  This was not labor, nor the lawyers guild nor college students, though all have been active.

This was a protest that crossed class, ideology and religion, and that is what scares the government, so long used to successfully playing divide and conquer among the opposition groups. “The psychological barrier of fear has been broken,”  Shadi Hamid, director of research for the Brookings Doha Center told the Washington Post, a comment repeated by several others. “Eighty million Egyptians saw [Tuesday's protests]. They saw that it’s okay to come out and that there is safety in numbers.”

For human rights activists, there are immediate and long-term issues to address.  The first is to renew Amnesty’s call Tuesday for the government to stop the crackdown on protesters and to end reckless responses by police and security officials.

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Musaad Abu Fagr Freed! Egyptian Bloggers Strike Back

Musaad Abu Fagr

The Egyptian government came late to discovering the power of the Internet and social networking, but for the last four years, they’ve made it the center of its efforts to muzzle Egyptian civil society.

This week, the activists pushed back and earned an important victory.

Egyptian Bedouin blogger and activist Musaad Suliman Hassan Hussein, was released July 14 after being held in prison without trial for almost three years, accused of inciting protests against the demolition of thousands of homes in the Sinai Peninsula.

The charges were ludicrous, a ruse to attack someone whose views were outside of government control.  A prisoner of conscience who often wrote under the pen name of Musaad Abu Fagr, Hussein had been adopted recently by two US Amnesty International groups in Omaha, Neb., and Westbury, N.Y.

Upon his release Abu Fagr thanked Amnesty for its efforts. “Amnesty International’s support is one of the reasons that I was released,” he said. “Your messages gave me a sense of solidarity.”

Amnesty’s joy at his release was tempered by the continuing detention of a growing number of bloggers, social network leaders, writers and other activists, including prisoner of conscience Karim Amer, who is scheduled to be released this year after a convicted based on his writings.  Egypt has been known to hold prisoners beyond their release date, and in the case of Abu Fagr, in opposition to legal orders for their release.

However, the release also comes on the heels of other promising news — a rare legal action against Egyptian policemen charged in the beating death of a blogger.  That case also brought a public comment from Gamal Mubarak, son and presumed heir to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Many Egyptian activists who have felt the taste of Egyptian jails remember how when Hosni Mubarak came to power, his reign started with the opening of prisons and the release of many political prisoners.  The possibility seemed then that a new era of human rights and freedom was ahead.

That possibility has been crushed by the reality of the regime’s desire to bring its own kind of order to every area of civil society.  Now if this recent period of sunshine is a sign of a new Mubarak rising to the presidency, activists won’t follow the assumptions of 1981.  Musaad Abu Fagr is out of prison, but he and all other activists won’t be free until all prisoners of conscience are released and human rights are protected by the rule of law.