• 01:42
  • Thursday ,12 May 2011

Egypt is still ruled with an iron fist

By-Kate Allen-guardian



Thursday ,12 May 2011

Egypt is still ruled with an iron fist

The threat by the Egyptian justice minister, Abdel-Aziz al-Gindi, that law-breakers in the country will face "an iron fist" after Muslim-Christian violence at the weekend is a worrying one.

The sequence of events at the Saint Mena Coptic Christian church is still unclear, but certainly this kind of communal violence in Egypt has a long and disturbing history. It's right that the authorities take a zero-tolerance approach to all signs of co-ordinated violence against the country's small Coptic Christian population. But an iron fist? And hauling nearly 200 people before military courts?
This all smacks of Mubarak-era authoritarianism. And it's just the latest instance of Egypt's caretaker military rulers behaving in a draconian fashion while the world looks away.
Speaking during a visit to Cairo last week, the British foreign secretary, William Hague, said "the success of the Arab Spring will be judged very heavily by what happens here". Yet, if true, the future of the Arab protest movements, a phenomenon Hague calls "the most important development of the early 21st century", is already looking doubtful.
Let's take stock over what's actually happened in Egypt. First, the three decades of Hosni Mubarak's rule came to an end in February at great human cost: according to official figures, 840 people were killed by the security forces and nearly 6,500 injured.
Second, since Mubarak's fall Egypt has not seen a flowering of democracy and human rights; instead the army has cracked down hard on protests. When I was in the country last month several authoritative sources told me that Egypt's supreme council of the armed orces had overseen the detention of some 5,000 people up to mid-April. These reportedly include 14- and 15-year-olds. There are numerous reports of detainees suffering torture.
This is the dark undertow of the post-uprising period in Egypt. As Libya and Syria rage on, Egypt is largely out of the news. Recent weeks have brought arbitrary detention, torture, numerous trials of civilians before military courts and a concerted attempt to crack down on freedom of expression and assembly. On 12 April a new law (law No 34) entered into force, criminalising demonstrations and strikes and putting protesters at risk of imprisonment and heavy fines.
The ebb and flow in Egypt is by no means done with yet. On the one hand, for example, it was a source of relief to millions of Egyptians when the hated State Security Investigations service (SSI) was disbanded in mid-March. An agent of arbitrary detention and torture for years, the SSI symbolised the worst of the Mubarak era and had been a focus of opposition and demonstrations even before this year's mass uprisings.
Yet, while Egypt's interior ministry has announced that a new national security agency will replace it, the details remain unclear and we do not know whether former SSI officers will be in any way investigated or subject to vetting before being reintegrated into a new force. Will it be a case of new uniforms, same old abuse?
Meanwhile members of Mubarak's old National Democratic party (NDP) have been rebranding themselves politically, gearing up to fight September's elections as independents. The Muslim Brotherhood, too, is preparing to contest up to half of seats, and women's groups told me of their fears that women's rights are set to suffer if politicians fail to take women's rights and political participation seriously.
Walk through Tahrir Square now and, apart from the burnt-out husk of the NDP headquarters, what strikes you is the sight of revolutionary banners still proclaiming "The army and the people are united!" Many in Egypt are far more distrustful of Egypt's temporary rulers than this suggests – and with good reason.
Up to 10,000 people were held in administrative detention under longstanding emergency law powers in the final period of Mubarak's rule and some of these have now been released (1,659 by the middle of March). Yet the new Egyptian authorities have still not revealed exactly how many such prisoners are still held or set out a process for their release, even when there is a court order requiring it.
The unvarnished truth is that Egypt's jails have recently been filling up with men, women and teenagers and its new rulers are betraying the hope and promise of Egypt's massive February protests.
If Hague and other leading politicians on the world stage know of these sinister events they are keeping very quiet about them. Hague for one rightly acknowledges the danger of the Arab Spring "collaps[ing] back into more authoritarian regimes, conflict and increased terrorism in north Africa". So for how much longer can he ignore Egypt's clunking iron fist?