Foreign Policy: Egypt’s Islamists Turn Violent

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The Muslim Brotherhood says that its protests are purely peaceful — but evidence is mounting of torture and weaponry at its Cairo sit-ins.

CAIRO — Ahmed Sabet, 22, has been hospitalized for over a week.

“They stamped on his face,” said his cousin, Aly al-Masry, 20, who told Sabet’s story from his bedside as he drifted in and out of consciousness. “He has three stab wounds, a bullet hole through his leg and stick marks all over his body. There are bruises where he was dragged along the asphalt.”

On the night of July 26, during clashes with supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsy, Sabet, who is part of the April 6 Youth Movement that opposes the former leader, told Foreign Policy he was a victim of an armed assault by an Islamist mob. He says was dragged by pro-Morsy protesters to a nearby mosque, where a dozen other individuals were being held. There, he says, they tortured him for 14 hours.

The turmoil in Egypt has shown no sign of ending since Morsy’s ouster more than a month ago. And there are ominous signs that the violence is poised to worsen: The Egyptian government ordered the police last week to take “all the necessary measures” to disperse the two major pro-Morsy sit-ins that have been going on for more than a month, raising fears that the security services could once again open fire on Islamist demonstrators, as they have done previously. Meanwhile, President Adly Mansour delivered a speech on Aug. 7 declaring that the period of negotiations with the Muslim Brotherhood “ended today,” and other officials have denounced the Islamist protesters as “terrorists” contending the sit-ins are armed encampments that represent a danger to national security.

There is now mounting evidence that some Brotherhood loyalists within the pro-Morsy sit-ins  — which up until now had remained largely peaceful — are indeed armed, and have committed what some human rights groups describe as torture against their political opponents. In interviews, multiple Egyptians who clashed with or observed the pro-Morsy sit-ins describe being beaten and fired on by Morsy supporters.

Amnesty International released a report on Aug. 2 in which anti-Morsy protesters recount being “captured, beaten, subjected to electric shocks or stabbed” at the Islamists’ two encampments in the Cairo districts of Nasr City and Giza. Ten citizens have reportedly filed torture complaints at local police stations, Amnesty reported. And the violence has even claimed lives: “[W]e were told by the morgue five bodies bearing the marks of torture were found near both camps,” says Mohamed Lofty, an Amnesty researcher.

The body of 32-year-old tuk-tuk driver Amr, whose family requested that his full name not be published, was one of those found bearing signs of torture near a pro-Morsy sit-in. Amr’s corpse was dumped naked and mutilated by a metro station near the Giza encampment on July 20.

“I didn’t know my own brother from the body in the morgue. You could see the burn marks,” said his sister Samah, 35. “He was beaten by sticks everywhere from his head to his feet, and they electrocuted his face and his chest.”

Amr was on his way to the neighborhood near the encampment when he went missing on July 17.Days later, the police tracked Amr’s phone to a man based in the Giza camp, who said he had found the phone in the sit-in and claimed Amr had been accused of spying and stealing by the protesters. Samah believes Amr was tortured to death inside the sit-in.

Lofty explained that individuals like Amr are picked up by the self-appointed sit-in security guards if they are considered to be thieves, spies, or pro-military infiltrators. “People take justice into their hands, they think they are entitled to apply punishments, investigate and use cruelty,” he said. “They apply their own law in the camps.”

Authorities are still investigating the murder.

In addition to the torture allegations, human rights groups also say there is evidence that some Morsy supporters have brought guns to the protests — echoing claims by government officials, including Prime Minister Hezam al-Beblawi, that the protesters are armed and have “broken all the limits of peacefulness.” These reports don’t bode well for likely upcoming efforts to break up the sit-ins: If protesters are armed, Egypt’s poorly trained police force may not be able to shut down the encampments without considerable use of force and possibly further bloodshed.

“We can say with confidence that there are weapons in the Giza sit-in … it is not very well concealed,” says Karim Ennarah, a researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. He pointed to a pro-Morsy rally in the nearby neighborhood of Bain el-Sarayat on July 2, when pro-Morsy protesters, marching back to the sit-in, opened fire on local residents as clashes erupted.

There is video evidence of how armed Islamists have used violence against their opponents. Ali Bazeed, 27, who works in a photocopying business overlooking the scene of the Bain el-Sarayat fighting, showed Foreign Policy the shop’s CCTV footage from the night of the clashes. In the video, bearded men and youth trash the premises. One man carries a rifle, while others brandish a pistol and a sword. Bazeed claims to know one of the men wielding a knife in the footage: “He’s from here and lives in the sit-in.”

Later in the video, dozens of men from the same group brutally beat a young man caught up in the clashes.

The next day, July 3, which saw the military move in to depose Morsy, brought further evidence that the Giza sit-in was armed. Mohamed, a 22-year-old local journalist and human rights worker, reported seeing handmade shotguns, made by citizens in underground workshops, at the site. “They were lying on the floor in the corner of a tent.”

Alaa Abdel-Fattah, a 31-year-old renowned activist and blogger opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood who lives in the area, also recounts being shot at with live ammunition from the direction of the sit-in on July 23.

“We clearly saw a couple of guys with machine guns who were shooting constantly in the air in an Islamist march towards the Giza sit-in a few weeks ago,” Abdel-Fattah says. He describes unidentified shooters from within the area of the encampment “taking pot shots” at anyone believed to be a “thug or a threat” during these fights. Abdel-Fattah himself took one bystander who had been shot through the shoulder, with the bullet entering his chest, to the hospital, but the man later died from his wound.

“I talked to people in the camp who admit that they have weapons, but their version is that they are constantly attacked by thugs supported by the police,” Abdel-Fattah says. However, he says, those with weapons are in the minority. “We’re dealing with a few highly armed individuals — this is not the whole sit-in.”

Meanwhile, reports of attacks on Egyptian journalists at Morsy rallies continue to rise. The Brotherhood has feuded with local media since the military takeover — and most Egyptian news outlets are staunchly critical of the protests, sometimes to a fault. In reaction, demonstrators appear to be taking matters into their own hands.

Cameraman Shehab Eldin Abdel Razeq, 23, who works for ONTV, a television channel widely perceived to be anti-Morsy, was one of the victims of the protesters’ anger. He sustained head injuries after he was beaten with sticks in the Nasr City sit-in on the day of Morsy’s ouster. “They took me to a tent where there were five other people, bound and in a mess,” he said. “I had to pretend that I worked for an American network.”

The Muslim Brotherhood and the “Anti-Coup Coalition,” which has organized the nationwide demonstrations calling for Morsy’s reinstatement, have repeatedly denounced the allegations of violence as a campaign by the authorities to rally public support for a crackdown. And inside the sit-ins themselves, Morsy backers vehemently deny that they are armed.

“We want to talk to the Egyptian media, they’re the ones who turned their backs on us, check my tent, we have nothing like weapons,” says Radwan Ragheb, 32, an electrician living at the Giza sit-in.

Top Brotherhood officials, meanwhile, argue that the charges of violence are fabricated by the media and security apparatus ahead of an impending police crackdown.

“The main purpose is to put the protests in the context of terrorism, so that they have to be dissolved as a threat to national security,” says Amr Darrag, a former minister of international cooperation under Morsy and leading Brotherhood figure.

In response to Amnesty’s report, those organizing the sit-ins invited the international rights group on a tour of the encampments. Lofty, the Amnesty researcher, interviewed the Nasr City sit-in’s security team, which is charged with instigating much of the violence. They admitted to conducting “interrogations” of “thugs” underneath the sit-in’s main stage, but denied the presence of torture cells.

Despite its recent report, Amnesty has also slammed the government’s calls to clear the sit-in as a “recipe for further bloodshed” given the security forces’ routine use of excessive and unwarranted lethal force. Rights groups say the actions of a few individuals do not give the army carte blanche for a violent dispersal of mainly peaceful protests.

However, with new reports that attempts at reconciliation between the interim government and the Brotherhood have been officially declared a failure, the clock is now ticking for the encampments. The Egyptian security forces are likely to use testimonies of violence and torture as a reason that the sit-ins must be cleared. And with the Muslim Brotherhood showing no signs of giving in, it’s becoming increasingly hard to see how Egypt avoids another round of bloodshed.

 

Food, fuel and faith divide Cairo’s streets

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While the president and army appear locked in conflict, the streets are divided between the extraordinary groundswell of dissent against the president and those loyalists staging their own sit-ins and demos.

“If the price for legitimacy is my blood, then I am prepared to sacrifice my blood to legitimacy and my homeland,” said Egypt’s President Morsi in a defiant television speech around midnight on 2 July. A day earlier, the army had given him an ultimatum: to “fulfill the demands of the people” or it will intervene. In other words, step down, or we will remove you.

Morsi’s speech rejected the army’s road map, derided the millions of protesters against him as remnants of the former regime and repeatedly declared his “constitutional legitimacy”, won at the ballot box just over a year ago.

The protests, largely spearheaded by a grass roots campaign called Tamarod (Rebel), which had collected 22 million signatures calling for his resignation. The group demands early presidential elections and a new constitution as well as an interim president and ruling technocratic council.

While the president and army appear locked in conflict, the streets are divided between the extraordinary groundswell of dissent against the president and those loyalists staging their own sit-ins and demos. As tensions rise, deadly clashes between rival protest groups have erupted across the country leaving dozens dead.

We are seeing two different visions of Egypt: Morsi and his largely Islamist supporters say he has legitimacy as the democratically elected president. But Egyptians in the street maintain that democracy is bigger than the ballot box: the president is unfit to rule, the people have spoken.

“I voted for that guy, so I’m here to defend my voice, he won the election the people made their choice. . . If some don’t like it, go the polling stations at the end of his term,” says Hamza Abu-Seer, 57, selling Morsi hats in the ongoing Islamist sit-in defending the president outside a Cairo mosque.

Democracy is a contractual agreement between people and an elected leader, maintains Gehad El-Haddad, a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) which are spear-heading the pro-Morsi protests, “and that contract was for four years.”

He sees their struggles as means to defend “the right of the people to choose the leader of their country”.

“We will not be jeopardised by anyone, even those with guns.”

A flagbearer in Tahrir Square.
Photograph: Bel Trew

However, those calling for the president’s ousting say he broke that trust with a series of unpopular and undemocratic decisions.

“This is part of democracy, people have the right to come to the streets and demand this, he breached the contract, especially with the constitutional declaration,” says Mohamed Waked, an editior of Middle East-focused e-zine Jadaliyya, referring to a controversial move by the president in November last year to immunise his decrees and the Constituent Assembly from judicial review..

Waked sees this as a “turning point” for the beleaguered leader, who had won support after prying power from the military.

Morsi then pushed through a hastily-written constitution that many slammed as being drafted by an Islamist-dominated assembly.

“Added to this was his and his party’s incompetence, ineffectiveness at governing – they couldn’t even run the country,” Waked adds. Egypt’s economy is in freefall: the pound is down about 20 per cent since the president took office, and foreign reserves continue to shrink. The knockdown effect on Egyptians is chronic fuel, water and bread shortages and crippling unemployment.

Economy aside, there have been concerns about freedoms as the number of people charged with insulting the president, which include journalists, bloggers and TV commentators, is higher than under Hosni Mubarak.

“I don’t think it’s a bad idea that lousy presidents who perform poorly are impeached. Egypt would be a garbage bin in four years if he stays,” concludes Waked.

Photograph: Bel Trew

Back at the pro-Morsi encampment, defenders of the president maintain a year is not long enough to fix Egypt. The president, they say, has wrestled power from the military, who took over for a year after Mubarak’s ouster; ratified a fair constitution; and expanded media freedom.

Leading member of the Brotherhood Mohamed El-Beltagy riled up supporters on the sit in main stage calling on them to “say goodbye to their wives and children” and get ready for martyrdom.

The chants in the loyalist demonstrations often reference Islam as source of legitimacy: this is question of identity as much as political affiliation. Like the president said in his speech, their vision of Egypt must be defended to the death.

The Islamist current also assert that they are still the majority: “Everyone knows the Islamic stream in Egypt across repetitive elections represents 70 per cent of the population,” asserts Haddad. “We’re the biggest, most organised stream of Egyptians inside Egypt.”

This again is refuted by anti-Morsi protesters.

“We are witnessing the demise of political Islam,” Waked maintains. “It meant oppression, horrible economic conditions, it set social segments against each other, demonising the Shia and the Christians. People are fed up with this.”

The president is backed by some Islamist groups like Gamaa Al-Islamiya, a once banned terrorist organisation, and the Wasat (“Centre”) Party, originally formed in the Nineties as a splinter group of the Brotherhood.

However, the united front appeared to crack Wednesday when leading member of Gamaa Al-Islamiya Tarek El-Zomor told Reuters that his organisation was now calling for early presidential elections.

The embarrassing comment was quickly denied by the group –  El-Zomor is not a spokesperson – but the damage had already been done.

Added to this the conservative Salafist Nour Party, the Brotherhood’s main political rivals and the second biggest party in the country – called on Monday for snap elections and a technocratic government.

“The Muslim Brotherhood has only their supporters, and they’re staying behind him, but outside the core he’s weakened,” maintains Khaled Fahmy, a historian and activist. “His power base is shrinking.”

Fahmy adds that the president’s speeches and actions appear to be only speaking to his support-base.

Certainly a number of unpopular government reshuffles over the last year have sparked these fears including the latest appointment of governorate heads last month. This saw tourism-hotspot Luxor given to a leading member of Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya, the very organization responsible for the infamous 1997 shooting spree which killed at least 58 foreign tourists.

A flag is waved during the presidential palace demonstrations.
Photograph: Bel Trew

The president left little room for manoeuvre with the opposition parties in his Tuesday speech. He did, however, call for dialogue.

Dr Diaa Adha, another leading member of the FJP, says the opposition over the last year repeatedly ignored offers of positions in government and his administration and have not met the president halfway. “They refused all kinds of democracy,” he said.

However, the country’s leading coalition of opposition forces the National Salvation Front (NSF), refute this. “We’ve had no communication from the other side [the Brotherhood] since December,” maintains Mohamed Aboul-Ghar, senior member of the NSF.

Morsi asserted in his speech on Tuesday that his “will is the will of the people” however he is losing support from within his own administration. In the last two days, six ministers have resigned together with two presidential spokespersons, rumours abound that more are jumping ship.

Meanwhile members of the military, who vowed to stay out of politics, released a statement on an unofficial Facebook page after his speech saying they will die protecting the Egyptian people from “terrorists, radicals and fools,” leading many to wonder whether this was a warning shot at the president.

Back in the rival protest camps, it is telling that that each side compares the other to the former regime, claiming that they represent the real Egypt.

“The Muslim Brotherhood is like Mubarak’s National Democratic Party,” says Ismail from the Nile Delta’s Zagazig, Morsi’s hometown. Ismail believes the Islamist group are slowly taking over and suffocating the country. At the anti-government rallies, organizers told all parties and movements to leave their own banners at home. A clever move: the result is a sea of Egyptian flags, a united nationalistic front.

Meanwhile at the Islamist sit-in, civil aviation engineer Farid Ismail, 43, says protesters are following the agenda of the former regime: “The opposition the minority in our country they want to act like thugs.”

The military are in emergency talks, the presidency remains steadfast and the anti-government protesters vow they will not stop their daily demonstrations.

“We will never respect the president. He has split the nation,” says Eman El-Mahdy from the Rebel campaign. “The Egyptian will is very strong. We won’t be silenced.”

 

A make or break moment for Egypt’s President Morsi

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Egypt is steeling itself in the run-up to nationwide protests against beleaguered President Mohamed Morsi on the first anniversary of his inauguration.

 

Sunday’s demonstrations, which organisers claim will “make or break” the Muslim Brotherhood president, are spearheaded by a grassroots campaign Tamarod, meaning “rebel”. It aims to secure enough signatures to a vote-of-no-confidence petition to outweigh the 13 million votes that brought Morsi into power.

Tamarod say they have already collected at least 18 million, and will present them to Morsi.

As tensions rise, rumours abound that the army may intervene, just one year after handing power to a civilian chief.  Defense Minster Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi cryptically said Sunday that the military “stayed out of political matters” but has a duty to “prevent Egypt slipping into a dark tunnel.”

Meanwhile the police, historically hostile to the Brotherhood, vowed to protect state institutions but not the group’s headquarters, which have recently been targeted in firebomb attacks.

Tamarod spokesperson Eman El-Haghy tells the New Statesman confidently that they will call on the head of the Constituent Assembly to be interim president. “The president has dragged our country backwards… he has not fulfilled the revolution’s goals.”

Tamarod say political forces will choose a transitional president and technocratic government to draft a constitution before elections: a tough call for an opposition that critics say hasn’t united around anything except dislike of the Brotherhood.

Nevertheless the mounting anger against Morsi is significant.

“I don’t think it gets more serious than this,” says Hisham Hellyer, Cairo-based non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institute.

“He doesn’t have even have a monopoly on the Islamist trend, the different [ultraconservative] Salafi parties are not deserting him but they are getting there. The more left-leaning Islamist parties are joining protests.”

Certainly the non-Islamist faction who backed Morsi during elections – largely to block his rival, Mubarak-era minister Ahmed Shafiq – are now organising demonstrations.  The National Salvation Front, Egypt’s largest opposition bloc, has meanwhile rejected any dialogue.

Protesters are demanding “bread, freedom and social justice,” the same grievances they voiced during the revolution.

Egypt suffers from a flailing economy; bread, water and fuel crises; and a brutal police force which hasn’t been held to account. Many say the recently-ratified Constitution was hastily drafted by an Islamist-dominated assembly.

Basic rights continue to be violated.

According to Human Rights Watch, bloggers and journalists are increasingly being prosecuted for “insulting” officials. State torture remains endemic; defamation and blasphemy prosecutions are increasing.

“The economy is not doing well,” says Ahmed Galal, Director of Cairo-based Economic Research Forum.  “The budget deficit is growing, and there is sluggish economic growth at a time of growing unemployment.”

Continued unrest and no political consensus means foreign investment has dried up, Galal adds. “Most of Egypt’s economic problems would be resolved if a political settlement is reached.” Something Morsi has yet to do.

Hellyer says the president also picked fights with institutions like the interior ministry and judiciary “without correct political support.”

One embarrassing example was when the High Constitutional Court rejected the electoral law last month, meaning Egypt won’t have a parliament until 2014, even though the president had already called elections.

Morsi himself faces direct judicial challenges: Shafiq is appealing the results of last year’s presidential poll.

Even the Brotherhood admits expectations have not been met.

“The first year has been much more troublesome than we had expected,” says Gehad El-Haddad, an advisor to the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, adding that the government’s performance has not been “optimum”.

State institutions, El-Haddad says, are the problem. “They are unprofessional and corrupt and actually challenge the president’s initiatives.”

El-Haddad also maintains that the media distort Morsi’s record. Despite the hype, he believes there isn’t widespread demand for Morsi’s resignation.

Hellyer says Sunday’s protests, if successful, are dangerous. “The propensity for violence would increase. It’s very bad for the story for Egyptian democracy, as it says that government can be thrown out after a year.”

“The only way Morsi leaves is by the military forcing him out, which involves violence and social disorder.” Clashes have already broken out in several governorates in the lead up.

Activists maintain they will keep their protests peaceful with marches “with people holding whistles and red cards to signify that it is game over,” El-Haghy explains. There will also be protests outside Egyptian embassies in cities around the world – including New York and London.

“We told the world that 30 June, the day we gave him our vote, will be the day we withdraw our confidence.”

Whether Morsi will exit the pitch early remains to be seen.

Morsi’s hometown divided on day of mass protests

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Residents of the president’s birthplace praise his administration, while in Zagazig, the Nile Delta governorate’s capital, many complain of chronic shortages and a struggling economy

 

 Campaign posters of President Mohamed Morsi, bleached in the sun, line the walls of a dilapidated building in tiny Nile Delta village of El-Adwa: the only sign that this might be the street that Egypt’s president grew up on.
Morsi’s family still live in the area on a farm, but as far as anyone there can tell, the president rarely visits. Especially after he lost what was once a Muslim Brotherhood stronghold to rival candidate Mubarak-era minister Ahmed Shafiq in the presidential elections last year.

Nevertheless those who live just down the street from Morsi’s birthplace remain fiercely loyal to the beleaguered president.

“He’s the most respectful person in the whole world, Wednesday was the best speech I’ve heard,” says Umm Hussein, a 62-year-old housewife, referencing Morsi’s televised Wednesday address to the nation.

The president admitted he had made mistakes and that the last year had been difficult, but attracted criticism when he named and shamed opposition figures and slammed the grassroots signature campaign Tamarod, or ‘Rebel’ – who are largely behind Sunday’s nationwide anti-government rallies – as “illegal.”

For her part, Hussein vehemently attacked the ‘Rebel’ initiative, which announced Saturday that it had gathered over 22 million signatures calling for the ouster of the president.

“Since Morsi took over, we’ve had a better life. He gave us everything bread, healthcare, money. I want one of the Tamarod lot to tell me what the president did wrong?” she asks emphatically.

Despite crippling youth employment, which this year reached a staggering 77 percent according to national statistics agency CAPMAS, the gathering crowd of young boys in Al-Adwa insist that they do support Morsi, saying he is one of them, particularly as he grew up in the same area. Tok-tok drivers zoom past hooting their support for the president.
The one voice of dissent, Mohamed Mohamed Youssef, a 53-year-old vendor who voted for Shafiq, is not well liked in the village.

“He didn’t do anything to remember, he hasn’t changed anything at all, ” Youssef says, sitting in front of a sparsely-stocked, rundown shop. “It’s affected my job, the electricity goes off sometimes twice a day, which is a nightmare.”

Sharqiya

Vendor Mohmaed Youssef, from the president’s hometown, says Morsi has done nothing to improve Egypt (Photo: Gregg Carlstrom)
 The fuel shortages, he adds, have bumped up the prices of goods, as suppliers are loathe to transport them out to far flung villages like Al-Adwa: “I have to sell things at more expensive prices so my percentage loss is high: I’m making a lot less, than last year.

Mohammed Fahim, a 28-year-old driver, tentatively admitted that “nothing has changed” but emphasised that rather than coming to the streets and demanding Morsi’s ouster, “we should leave him alone to fix it.”

It is a different story in Zagazig, the capital of Morsi’s home governorate. As you enter the city, graffiti slamming the Brotherhood and ironically calling for Morsi to “go home” is scrawled across the walls.

An enthusiastic pamphleteer decorated an entire tunnel and round-about with stickers of Morsi’s face reading“Erhal” or leave.

At a 100s-long queue of cars at a gas station, anger against the president is mounting. Twenty-six year-old Abdel-Rahman sums up his sentiment in a single phrase: “Have on mercy on us, Morsi.” His friend, Ismail Ismail, likened the Muslim Brotherhood to Hosni Mubarak’s much-hated National Democratic Party, as he believes they’re slowly taking over and suffocating the country.

In the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) headquarters, local leader Ahmed Shehata presents a very different Egypt.

He claims from his calculations that the “real revolutionaries” who will protest peacefully on 30 June will amount to no more than 20,000 people.

“If you take away the thugs, there won’t be more than 300 protesters on the streets of Sharqiya,” he adds, slamming Tamarod as criminals.

Despite weeks of anti-government protests, and with millions expected to fill the streets again Sunday – citing economic woes, fuel, water and electricity shortages, a bread crisis and a lack of reform – Shehata painted a picture of an Egypt moving forward.

 

Sharqiya

Posters reading “leave” plaster a roundabout in the Nile Delta’s Sharqiya, Morsi’s home governorate (Photo: Gregg Carlstrom)

The Muslim Brotherhood-led government, he says, has increased public sector salaries, the minimum wage, and social insurance for women who don’t work and are heads of households, while wheat farmers will be paid more for their crop.

“The people expected change would happen overnight post-revolution, but it needs time after the mess the old regime left the country in,” Shehata tells Ahram Online, pointing to the fact that they won a majority of seats in 2011 parliamentary elections as proof that the FJP have not lost support in his Nile Delta governorate.

The presidential elections, where Morsi lost Sharqiya to Shafiq by about 160,000 votes, were a result of corruption and intimidation by paid thugs, Shehata concludes.

“Egypt has had five decent elections, we changed the country from being under the army, and the media is more free: all this in just one year,” he claims, though on a local level, the only improvement he was able to point to was a road in nearby Bilbis.

“People are not protesting for the country but for money,” Shehata concludes, “30 June without thugs would not be 30 June.”

Nonetheless, the Freedom and Justice Party is still plugging the gaps left by a chronic failure of the state at a local level.

Dr Hanaan Amin, a paediatrics professor and advisor to the FJP on women’s issues, listed a number of projects for women that the Islamist party is running in the impoverished governorate. These include putting over 1,500 women through Brotherhood-run literacy classes, operating mobile healthcare clinics and providing financial and training support to small businesses.

“The FJP is the link between women and the big supermarkets… we’ve helped women set up jewellery and dairy businesses, providing them with a stable place where they can work,” she tells Ahram Online, “We coordinate with village doctors, mosques, schools and nurseries. We’re trying to improve people’s lives on a local level.”

Sharqiya

“Morsi have mercy on us” says Abdel-Rahman in 100s-long queue for fuel in Sharqiya (Photo: Bel Trew)
Despite this, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party is feeling the heat. Just hours after Ahram Online left the Islamist group’s headquarters in Sharqiya, it was attacked by armed assailants.

A 21-year-old student, Hossam Shoqqi, an office worker who made tea for Ahram Online reporters during the interview, was gunned down that evening and died from the bullet wound to his chest.

FJP offices across the country are bracing for further assaults.

With little change at a local and national level, thousands are expected to descend on Sharqiya’s streets Sunday.

“Everything we’re going through with the traffic, electricity, water, everything,” Nadia Mohamed, a local chemist concludes to Ahram Online. “I’m very worried all the time. We’re going from the worst to the worst.”

Al Jazeera: Nowhere to hide, Egypt’s vulnerable eyewitnesses

Click for original articleCairo, Egypt – Ahmed el-Said Salem, 19, said he witnessed his friend being killed by police at a downtown Cairo protest during the downfall of former president Hosni Mubarak.

Salem was later beaten and hospitalised by security forces in March, his family says, apparently to keep him from testifying about it.Yet under Egypt’s new draft of the Witness Protection Act, the same police force accused of abusing him would be put in charge of his safety.

The draft law, discussed by Egypt’s beleaguered Shura Council last week, was slammed in a recent report released by three Egyptian human rights organisations. They said they fear increased intimidation for witnesses to police crime, which is reportedly on the rise since 2011.

However, rights groups had little opportunity to present their concerns to lawmakers. Egypt’s legislature said it would host an open consultation with NGOs and the media, but discussions were held in private.

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Salem, meanwhile, has been locked up in a mental institution, his family says.

“The police report says Ahmed is mentally ill and was carrying documents outlining an Israeli plot when he was arrested,” said Nadia Loutfi Mahmoud, his sister-in-law.

She has a letter from his school stating he was a happy, psychologically sound student. Mahmoud alleged Salem was drugged while in detention at Cairo’s notorious Gabal Ahmar police camp, before being sent to a psychiatric hospital in Abbasiya.

“We wrote to the Ministry of Health asking for an immediate psychological re-assessment, but they replied saying, according to the law, his case will be reviewed in six months. So he’s stuck.”

Salem’s determination to testify and the implications of the new draft law will mean he will remain trapped indefinitely in the archaic Egyptian mental health system, his mother Wafaat Mohamed Mostafa said.

Vague regulations

Osama Diab from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) co-authored the recent report condemning the draft law.

“Our main concern with the current Witness Protection Act is that it doesn’t encourage witnesses to testify, at a time when discussions about implementing a transitional justice process and truth commissions – which is highly reliant on testimonies – is mounting,” said Diab.

The authors say the language of the legislation, which is just 10 articles long, is dangerously vague.

Unlike the United Nations model law, the document fails to properly outline what a witness is, or what should be the composition or activities of the police-run “protection unit”.

In addition, under Egyptian law refusing to testify is illegal. However, according to Article Nine of the new constitution, witnesses “found to have lied” will receive an “aggravated prison sentence”. This, Diab says, puts witnesses in an impossible position: forcing them to testify even if they fear the consequences of their testimony.

Meanwhile, those who disclose a witness’identity are “subject to imprisonment for at least a year” and a fine, which could end up being a lighter punishment than “lying” witnesses, Diab adds.

It will also only protect blood relatives of the witnesses – unlike similar legislation used in other countries, which covers anyone affected by the testimony.

The law puts witnesses and their families under the care of the security forces at a time of little police accountability and security sector reform. In the two years since the January 25 revolution toppled Murbarak’s regime, only three police officers have been jailed for wounding or killing citizens.

The combination of reported police crimes going unpunished and President Mohamed Morsi publicly praising the security forces, effectively gives officers the green light to abuse witnesses, rights groups say.

Widespread intimidation

Witnesses to police crimes are typically bribed, beaten, threatened with jail or even kidnapped, EIPR lawyer Reda Marey told Al Jazeera. Even though the state should legally pursue all murder investigations, once families or friends drop the complaints case against police are often shelved.

Cases of intimidation are widespread across Egypt, Marey said, citing examples in the Damahour, Giza and Daqahila governorates.

Mohamed Marzouq, a worker from Cairo’s lower-class district of Marg, was reportedly taken from his home by police shortly after the 18-day uprising against Mubarak’s rule began, detained in a flat, and allegedly tortured after he filed a case against his local police station for injuries sustained on January 28, 2011.

  Ola Mohamed Ibrahim’s brother died in police custody [Bel Trew/Al Jazeera]

Terrified, Marey said, Marzouq dropped the charges. When civil society groups encouraged him to file a lawsuit claiming he retracted his statement under duress, he said he was badly beaten with a gun by the same policeman.

Last year, one of the more shocking examples of police interference took place in the impoverished Nile Delta town of Mit Ghamr.

On September 16, 2012, Atef Bahbah was reportedly tortured to death in a police station as he attempted to help an assaulted woman file a report, following a violent security raid in the area.

When angry locals assembled outside the police station, security forces opened fire with automatic rifles, reportedly killing another resident, Said Asaalia.

Local lawyer Ayman Sakr, who has worked on the Mit Ghamr case, told Al Jazeera how he was pressured to step down. “The very day I went on [Egyptian channel] ONTV to talk about the two murders, the police accused my brother Youssef of being a thug; blocking roads and stopping trains.”

Among the eight other residents slapped with similar charges, two were Asaali’s relatives: a warning shot to the community, residents say.

Bahbah’s own wife Ateyad was offered 200,000 Egyptian Pounds ($28,500) to retract her testimony incriminating the police, Sakr added. She said she was told the authorities would jail her brother if she did not back off.

“She subsequently re-wrote her testimony a month later, which now reads that her husband died after falling heavily on his head.”

To date, none of the police officers are known to have been called in for questioning, and no forensic reports have been released. The policeman identified by residents as shooting Said was transferred to a different police station.

Better than nothing

The government maintains it is working on security sector reform and laws such as the Witness Protection Act are a step in the right direction.

“I can’t stress how important this legislation is,” said Taher Abdel-Mohsem Ahmed, a senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and a Shura Council MP, who is working on the law.

Abdel-Mohsem Ahmed said the FJP had been pushing for the act before the Ministry of Justice drafted the document. He also maintained the problem was not with the police per se but with remnants of the former regime inside the Interior Ministry.

“The ministry will create a separate unit of specially chosen members of the security forces. If you look at the situation that we are in, there is no other solution than that the police protect us.”

The president, the government and the FJP, Abdel-Mohsem Ahmed added, were committed to security sector reform – but change will take time, and so people “must be patient”.

The Ministry of Interior declined to comment about the criticisms levelled at the ministry and the draft legislation.

But there is little to reassure those desperate to receive justice for their loved ones.

“I still don’t understand how you get to be the judge and the executer?” Bahbah’s sister, Ola Mohamed Ibrahim, asked from her small home in Mit Ghamr. “I don’t care what laws they author, I lost my brother, and I just want someone to be held to account.”

Karim Ennarah, an EIPR researcher who worked on Bahbah’s case, said the only way to protect witnesses was for civil society to make their stories public, while putting pressure on the state.

“This shaky transitional period – marked by inability to implement anything – will continue, as long as there is no real commitment from the ruling elite to ensure police accountability,” Ennarah said.

“Any attempt to pretend that Egypt’s institutions are functioning normally and are capable of enforcing laws like these, will be met with a different reality.”

Follow Bel Trew on Twitter: @Beltrew