Bel Trew, Samalout
The sign of the cross tattooed on their fingers marked out the Egyptian workers for especially brutal treatment at the hands of their captors in Libya.
Some were beaten so hard that they suffered brain damage. Shenouda, 30, says he was among a group of Coptic Christians brutalised while they were held for two weeks in a prison at Tripoli’s main airport.
He said that he was flogged twice a day after his tattoo was spotted by his Islamic guards.
He is among a wave of Egypt’s impoverished Christian minority who have gone to neighbouring Libya to find work despite the risk of violence.
“More and more people are going to Libya because of the economic crisis here. You can’t get work, you can’t make money in Egypt,” said Shenouda, who is now back in his village near the town of Samalout, about 150 miles south of Cairo.
“We are aware of the dangers, particularly as Christians. We know it is more likely we will die than live in Libya but we don’t have a choice,” he said.
Thousands of Egyptians are believed to cross illegally to Libya each year and about 500 young men travel each month from Shenouda’s region alone. They pay smugglers about £300 for passage from the nearby Minya to Benghazi.
Many die making the journey or at the hands of the numerous Islamist and jihadist groups that stalk Libya.
As Egyptian authorities use brute force to disperse two pro-Morsy sit-ins, protesters vow to resist the crackdown until the bitter end.
CAIRO — A hail of gunfire crackled in the background as paramedics rushed a young male protester on a blood-spattered stretcher away from the frontline of the Islamist sit-in in Cairo’s Nasr City. The neat bullet wound to his stomach, the medics speculated, was from a rifle round. For a few minutes they tried CPR — but to no avail. Before anyone could learn his name, the man, who appeared to be in his twenties, was dead.
“Most of them are shot in the head or the chest,” said the exhausted looking medic, Ahmed, his green uniform smeared with dried blood. “In my truck alone, four protesters have died.”
This is how it went for most of the day on Wednesday, Aug. 14, as Egyptian security forces’ attempt to clear two sit-ins manned by supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsy devolved into a bloody, 12-hour long battle that by nightfall in Cairo left more than 250 dead and 800 injured. It marked the single most violent day in Egypt since Hosni Mubarak was ousted from power in February 2011.
The Interior Ministry, the military, and interim government had promised to peacefully disperse the camps, raising the idea of cutting off their electricity and water to force protesters to go home. But at 6:30 a.m. this morning, it became clear they had decided to take a less subtle approach: Armored cars, police officers, and soldiers marched on the protests in Nasr City and Giza, opening fire with birdshot, tear gas, and live ammunition.
“They didn’t give us a chance. They struck us down like animals, I’ve never seen it like this,” said Ahmed Azazy, a 44-year-old businessman from Banha, who was taking a rest from the front line of the clashes by the main encampment. “I can’t tell you the amount of people who died in front of me. Go to the field hospital, see how many bodies there are.”
The Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque, which sits at the center of the Nasr City sit-in, became a makeshift morgue as the casualties from clashes with the police mounted, eyewitnesses toldForeign Policy. The ground was covered in blood, protesters reported, and medics were forced to lay the bodies on the floor. Most were shot dead, they said. One reportedly burned to death after his tent was set on fire.
The field hospital next to the mosque was surrounded by clashes. Protesters on the southern side of the sit-in took turns sprinting through a corridor of live fire to access the building in order to check on the wounded and the dead.
Hours into the onslaught, hundreds of protesters still held their ground, resisting the security forces with rocks and Molotov cocktails thrown over the makeshift barricades of pavement stones. Meanwhile, women and children remained huddled behind sandbags and concrete walls in a southern corner of the Nasr City sit-in. The gunfire, coming from all directions, was bewildering. Bullets rained down from above and zipped past at street level — protesters claimed they had seen snipers shooting down on the encampment from the overlooking buildings. Black columns of smoke mingled with the impenetrable plumes of tear gas, making it difficult to breathe.
“Killers, they’re killers, they slaughtered us like sheep,” shouted one protester on his way back from the frontline, a Quran tied around his neck and a cheap plastic gas mask on his head.
Standing among the weary fighters, a protester took a break from the fighting and started a chant to boost morale. “We are ready to give our blood and our soul for Islam,” he shouted, and hundreds joined in. They climbed the sandbags in defiance of the security forces, who respond with gunfire.
On the side streets of the residential area, security forces shot at anyone attempting to access the sit-in. Residents, journalists, and families of those trapped inside ran from car to car, taking cover from the hail of gunfire. The authorities had promised a safe exit — but all entrances were barricaded in by the security forces or blocked by street battles.
“My son, he’s just 21 years old, he went to help when he heard the gunfire. He cannot get out, we cannot get in, what do we do?” said Mona Salama, 40, a doctor who lives nearby. “There are snipers on the buildings who shot at us as we tried to get in. It’s not safe.”
Eyewitnesses later reported that the security forces raided the medical center, forcing protesters and medics to flee, leaving the dead behind. For its part, the Muslim Brotherhood released a statement accusing the police of stealing the bodies to cover up the size of the massacre.
The violence was not restricted to the capital. In Upper Egypt, pro-Morsy demonstrators attacked local government offices, setting fire to a courthouse in the city of Beni Suef. Some 41 people were killed in the province of Minya, according to Health Ministry officials, as street battles with security forces raged on into the evening.
It was not just Morsy supporters who were under attack: By midday, the violence had morphed into sectarian bloodshed. The main Coptic Christian church in Sohag and in Minya was set on fire by Islamist protesters according to local media reports. In the Nile Delta’s governorate of Gharbia, citizens formed human chains around one church in a bid to protect it from an impending assault.
With Egypt in flames, the government moved quickly to try to restore law and order by all means necessary. Interim President Adly Mansour’s office announced that a curfew would be put in place from 9 p.m. until 7 a.m., and that a month-long state of emergency would be implemented. Mansour also called on the military to support the Ministry of Interior and its police force.
But even as Mansour tried to assert control, his administration was showing signs of strain. Vice President Mohamed ElBaradei, who had been pushing for reconciliation with the Muslim Brotherhood, tendered his resignation in a statement that condemned the breakup of the sit-ins.
However, other political forces sympathetic to the government defended the crackdown. Egypt’s main coalition of non-Islamist forces, the National Salvation Front (NSF), defended the actions of the security forces in a statement, calling the day “a victory against all political forces trafficking in the name of religion.” Khaled Daoud, a leading member of the NSF, told Al Jazeera that the Muslim Brotherhood bears “full responsibility” for what happened, as their encampments were not peaceful.
The destruction of the pro-Morsy protesters’ sit-ins, however, seems to have done nothing to dull the opposition’s resolve to keep up the resistance to the military government. Even after 12 hours of bullets and tear gas, they were already preparing for the next round of fighting.
At the back of the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque, where protesters were still battling with lines of police, protesters remained determined to keep the demonstrations going.
“Whatever the police do, we will get Morsy back, he will remain our president,” said Ahmed Alam, a 28-year-old engineer readying himself to go back into the fight. “They have to kill 80 million of us to get the power they so desperately want.”
A bitterly divided Egypt was bracing for further bloodshed last night after supporters of the ousted president, Mohamed Morsi, pledged to give up their lives rather than disband the protest camp in Cairo where dozens were shot dead in clashes with security forces at the weekend.
Egypt’s Interior Minister vowed to clear the month-long sit-in outside a mosque by members of Mr Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, warning them to “come to their senses” and go home.
A bitterly divided Egypt was bracing for further bloodshed last night after supporters of the ousted president, Mohamed Morsi, pledged to give up their lives rather than disband the protest camp in Cairo where dozens were shot dead in clashes with security forces at the weekend.
Egypt’s Interior Minister vowed to clear the month-long sit-in outside a mosque by members of Mr Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, warning them to “come to their senses” and go home. But Brotherhood leaders said that the thousands of demonstrators, including women and children, were ready to die before giving up their calls for Mr Morsi’s reinstatement.
Gehad El-Haddad, a Muslim Brotherhood spokesman, said Mr Morsi’s supporters had grown more determined after the deaths of at least 72 demonstrators in clashes in the early hours of Saturday. “There are feelings of agony and anger, but also a very strong feeling of determination,” he said. “For us, if we die, we meet our creator and we did so for a just cause. Either we die or we succeed.”
Cairo — It was not exactly a warm welcome: As Egypt’s new cabinet started its first day on the job, thousands of people were protesting outside, angry about a body that has already been met with criticism or tepid praise by everyone from ultraconservative salafis to liberal revolutionaries.
The new ministers are perhaps the most technocratic bunch since the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak two-and-a-half years ago.
Respected economists have been installed in key positions, raising hopes that the new cabinet will move to address the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. The prime minister, Hazem el-Beblawi, created a new ministry of transitional justice, a small step towards probing the rampant human rights abuses which have occurred since the revolution.
What they lack, though, is universal political backing. None of the newly-appointed ministers hail from Egypt’s major Islamist movements. Deposed president Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood did not receive any portfolios, and senior members of the group have rejected any involvement. The salafi Nour party, Egypt’s second-largest bloc, also did not accept any of the positions it was offered.
Several jobs were filled by holdovers from the previous cabinet, which was widely criticised for failing to fix everything from street violence to power outages. Other ministers have ties to the Mubarak regime, most notably foreign minister Nabil Fahmy, who served as the longtime Egyptian ambassador to the United States.
So the clock is already ticking: The new cabinet takes office amid very high expectations, held together by the awkward alliance of politicians and generals who overthrew Morsi.
“This cocktail of ministers cannot work together effectively,” said Nader Bakkar, a spokesman for Nour. “I hope for them to succeed because I want Egypt to be stabilised, but from a managerial point of view I doubt they will.”
Technocrats and holdovers
Beblawi himself has been praised as a technocrat, and some of his ministers also bring lengthy professional experience to the job. The finance minister, Ahmed Galal, is a well-known economist who criticised Morsi for doing little to resolve the structural problems in Egypt’s economy. Ashraf El-Araby, the planning minister, and Hisham Zaazou, the tourism minister, have won praise from across the political spectrum.
Thousands of Morsi’s supporters staged a protest against the new cabinet this week [Reuters]
Morsi’s last minister of investment was a Brotherhood cadre with a professional background in marketing mobile phones. His replacement, Osama Saleh, is an economist who once headed Egypt’s investment authority.
Critics say the new cabinet still under-represents women, but it is undeniably more diverse than the ones that preceded it. “This is the first time we have three Copts in the cabinet in the history of Egypt,” said Mohamed Aboul Ghar, the founder of the Social Democratic Party, whose leadership have been tapped for the premiership and have been key in authoring this transitional period. “And we have [three] women in the cabinet. SCAF only had one, Mubarak only ever had two.”
Other appointments have drawn less praise, however. Electricity minister Ahmed Imam was first appointed by Morsi and will keep his job in the new cabinet, even though the country has been paralysed for months by worsening blackouts. (His solutions included urging Egyptians to turn down their air conditioners.)
More egregious, though less surprising, was the decision to keep interior minister Mohamed Ibrahim in his post. Since Ibrahim took office last year, the police have almost disappeared from the streets, leading to a sharp rise in violent crime; meanwhile, rights groups say that police torture and other abuses remain rampant.
But the police openly sided with the coup that toppled Morsi, and the new government is eager to maintain the support of the security forces. “It’s dubious and unsatisfying, but I understand the political motivations,” said Bassem Sabry, a commentator and analyst here.
So there was little criticism of Ibrahim’s reappointment from Egypt’s political factions. Bakkar refused to comment, while Aboul Ghar defended Ibrahim’s record since Morsi’s ouster. “The interior minister was very much disliked during Morsi’s rule, but he has done a good job during the last few weeks,” he said.
In a press conference on Tuesday, Ibrahim said that restoring security would be a “top priority” for the new government.
He said little about police reform, though, and it’s unclear how Egypt’s new cabinet will pursue transitional justice without a major shakeup in the security services.
Defence minister Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was also sworn in again, just days after 51 people were killed outside the Republican Guard headquarters in Cairo. Human Rights Watch issued a report this week which accused the military of using “unnecessary force” and called for a full investigation. But senior politicians have already admitted that seems unlikely. “We probably won’t get justice,” Aboul Ghar said.
‘An internal implosion’
The Nour party temporarily suspended its involvement in negotiations after the massacre, and it has kept itself at a distance from the new cabinet. Bakkar said that Nour was offered four ministerial jobs, as well as a vice premiership, but declined all of them to avoid appearing as if it had benefitted from joining the coalition against Morsi.
Analysts said their motivations might be more pragmatic: to stay out of a cabinet that will struggle to fix Egypt’s myriad problems.
“They affect the cabinet negotiations, but they know it will face challenges that might be beyond the capabilities of anyone,” Sabry said. “And some of their salafi base is supporting Morsi. So joining might be problematic for them, and they might face an internal implosion.”
Bakkar also criticised the cabinet for drawing too heavily from liberal parties. The prime minister and his deputy are both co-founders of the Social Democratic Party, and several other portfolios went to senior members of the Constitution Party and Wafd Party.
Aboul Ghar, however, said it would be difficult to find experienced figures without some party affiliation. “Most of the good technocrats joined the new political parties after the revolution,” he said. “Those who have joined the cabinet have had their party membership suspended.”
On the other end of the spectrum, the cabinet has been criticised by groups like Ahmed Maher’s April 6 movement, which condemned the inclusion of Mubarak-era figures. “How will those ministers achieve the goals of a revolution that was against their regime?” Maher said in a statement released on Wednesday.
‘A gun to someone’s head’
Standing on the sidelines, of course, is the Muslim Brotherhood. A spokesman for the interim president, Ahmed el-Moslemany, said that the Brotherhood was offered cabinet positions but declined them.
Top Brotherhood officials have denied this, and Gehad el-Haddad, a senior adviser to the Freedom and Justice Party, the Brotherhood’s political wing, called the cabinet illegitimate. “We don’t recognise anyone in it,” he said.
It’s like you put a gun to someone’s head and asked for reconciliation.Amr Darrag, Muslim Brotherhood official
Amr Darrag, a Brotherhood leader and Morsi’s final minister of planning, said the group would not join the government while it is being “pursued.” Morsi remains under house arrest, and senior Brotherhood leaders have been arrested or brought in for questioning.
“We need to see any signs of seriousness,” said Darrag, who was replaced by Araby, the man he replaced just two months ago. “If you want to prove to be serious, then free the president, free the captive people, issue an independent investigation of what happened in front of the Republican Guard… do something to indicate that there is a real willingness.”
With the Brotherhood waiting in the wings and threatening to escalate its protests, the transitional government had to move forward quickly with the appointments. Aboul Ghar admits this affected the selection of ministers, as “there was not enough time to fish for new people for some posts.”
The prime minister also ignored requests to shrink the size of the cabinet, which now contains 34 ministers. Nour and other parties had suggested cutting it in half, and urged Beblawi to merge ministries like electricity and petroleum into a single energy ministry. “There is a lot of overlap between some of the portfolios,” Sabry said.
Last minute decision-making also highlighted the ongoing spats within the uncomfortable coalition that toppled Morsi. The head of Cairo’s opera house, Ines Abdel Daymen, told local channel ONTV that she was on her way to be sworn in when she got the call saying she was out because of criticism from Nour.
Meanwhile the army are orchestrating events and writing the timeline: Despite promises to the contrary, Egypt’s political factions were not consulted over the writing of the constitutional declaration, which laid out a schedule for elections and defined the powers of the government during the transitional period.
With investigations under way into military involvement in last Monday’s massacre and the police back to tear-gassing protesters on Cairo’s streets, there are few guarantees transitional justice will be served and change realised. “It’s like you put a gun to someone’s head and asked for reconciliation,” Darrag said.
After two-and-a-half years and several disastrous transitional periods, much is resting on this new government. Several cabinet ministers declined interview requests, saying it was too early to comment on their work. The cabinet’s backers, for their part, have promised everything from economic growth to a more transparent and inclusive political process, setting high expectations for the next six months.
“I think the situation will be better,” said Aboul Ghar. “This cabinet will do in a very short time things that all cabinets since Mubarak’s time failed to do.”
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.”
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.
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.”
“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.”
Cairo, 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.
Follow spotlight coverage of the struggling young democracy
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.
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.
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.”