Foreign Policy: ‘Mubarak Is Free and the Country Is on Fire’

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Did Egypt’s revolution just die?

CAIRO — Heshan Amin, a 24-year-old student, sits with his head in the hands, just a few hundred feet from Tahrir Square, where he and his friends fought the police during the Jan. 25, 2011 revolution. He had broken the government-imposed curfew to come here when news reached him that Egypt’s toppled leader Hosni Mubarak would be released from prison.

“I feel like I stabbed myself in the back, I didn’t know going to the streets to protest would give me such false hope,” Amin says bitterly. “I have been protesting for change for two years and look where we are. Mubarak is walking and the country is on fire.”

Egypt’s prosecutor general announced Wednesday night that the release of Egypt’s longtime autocrat is final. However, state media reported that the country’s prime minister quickly ordered that Mubarak would be placed under house arrest — part of the “emergency measures” instituted in the country after the military ousted President Mohamed Morsy last month.

Mubarak’s release from prison is ill-timed: Violent battles between security forces and Morsy’s supporters have rocked the nation in the past week, leaving hundreds dead. But however politically charged Mubarak’s release may be, there is a solid legal justification behind the decision.

More than two years after Mubarak fell from power, he still has not been found guilty of a crime. In June 2012, a court did find him guilty being involved in the killing of protesters — but that verdict was overturned when the court of appeal found procedural errors in the case.

As the aged autocrat awaits a retrial in that case, he ran out the clock on the maximum time in pre-trial detention allowed under Egyptian law, explains Hoda Nasrallah, a lawyer for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR).

“Two years is the maximum period allowed for defendants accused of committing a crime that carries the death penalty, in his case the killing of demonstrators,” says Nasrallah, who has represented protesters killed during the January uprising.

Since April 15, Mubarak had been detained based on other cases against him, such as profiting from export of gas to Israel, appropriating funds for the upkeep of the presidential palaces, and receiving gifts from state-owned press institutions. But at some point, Nasrallah said, those endless extensions had to come to an end.

By this week, the only pending case was the charges against him for receiving gifts from state-owned media. “His lawyers contested his detention, as he had repaid the value of the gifts [that the] state-owned news outlet Al-Ahram had given him,” Nasrallah says.

Mubarak could still be re-imprisoned as the cases against him proceed. But whether or not that happens, his trial has still been a signature disappointment for those who hoped that the 2011 revolution would usher in a country governed by the rule of law.

“It has been a sham trial since day one, there has been a lack of political will and a commitment to justice,” says Karim Ennarah, a member of the criminal justice team at EIPR, who has closely observed the case. “Thousands of testimonies were dismissed from the 18 days. We also have structural problems with the judiciary.”

One of the issues, Ennarah continues, has been the judiciary’s lack of faith in technology. Videos, Ennarah explains, are not trusted as reliable evidence by the judges, who fear they could be doctored. “They still get government experts to comment on the videos, who can be biased,” he said.

Nasrallah says the case was quickly taken to court “to please the people in the streets” without collecting enough evidence, a move which hampered the trial from the beginning. Nor is it easy to prove that Mubarak was directly involved in the police crackdown during the uprising — his defense team, after all, insists that he was unaware of most of the actions his own security forces were taking.

“They can prove that he didn’t know about the security forces’ plan from the beginning,” Nasrallah says.

The largest problem has been that the same police force tasked with collecting evidence in the trial was the body largely responsible for the killings. This conflict of interest, Nasrallah said, meant that the police hampered the investigation at every turn. “[T]he prosecution had to do the investigating, which is not their job,” she says. “They are not trained nor have the political will to do it.”

Other state agencies have been just as obstructionist as the police. Egypt’s General Intelligence Service sent the prosecutor general tapes that did not have any evidence on them, claiming the relevant recordings had been “taped over.”

Nasrallah relates another disaster: A senior police officer said he “accidentally” wiped a crucial CD containing calls from the operations room of the Central Security Forces. Without such information, it is impossible to prove that the police crackdown on the street during the 18 days of revolution in 2011 was ordered by the top political officials of the Mubarak era

Even if he walks, Mubarak is due back in court on Aug. 25 for another hearing of his retrial. The timing provides an insight into the tumultuous period through which Egypt is currently passing: On the same day, six top Muslim Brotherhood leaders will also be in the dock – placed there on charges arising out of their opposition to the new government.

This has led many to fear the legal system is once again helping out the old regime. For the protesters who have been fighting for a new Egypt, it is hard news to swallow.

“Mubarak will be acquitted, it’s clear. If that happens, I give up,” says Amin. “To be honest, I don’t think protesting brings anything anymore. In the end, it’s just people sitting in the street.”

Al Jazeera: Egypt’s sexual assault epidemic

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Women at Egypt’s protests often must fight more than the political cause that brought them into the streets.

 It is the night of July 3, and on the streets of downtown Cairo thousands are celebrating the ousting of Egypt’s deposed president, Mohamed Morsi. But below ground, in the police booth of Tahrir Square’s metro station, Joanna Joseph is attempting to comfort a young girl.

She had been surrounded by dozens of men in the square, stripped and sexually assaulted. And now, on the request of her family, a medic is trying to conduct a virginity test on the floor of the police booth.

“I was shouting at the doctor not to touch the girl. The girl couldn’t even cope with hearing the crowds,” says Joseph, who is a volunteer with the Anti-Sexual Harassment Campaign (OpAntiSh), a grassroots organisation set up in November 2012, which sends teams of volunteers to protests to intervene in mob assaults. “The policeman said he had received four or five girls in this state every day,” she adds.

Since the 2011 uprising against Hosni Mubarak, then the Egyptian president, attacks like these have become an epidemic in Tahrir Square, the site of many of the protests. And in the week surrounding the ousting of Morsi, 150 such cases were reported. Many others, of course, go unreported. The level of violence involved is often extreme – in January, two teenage girls were raped with knives.

Thirty-year-old musician Yasmine el-Baramawy, who was attacked in Tahrir Square last November, describes the pattern: Men surround the woman, rip off her clothes and then perform manual rape, while an outer circle fends off anyone who might try to help her with sticks, blades and belts.

“They were taking photos of me and laughing,” Baramawy says. “They pinned me naked to the hood of a car and drove me around.”

Vocalising sexual harassment in Egypt

Deep roots

The speed, efficiency and ferocity of the attacks imply that they are orchestrated, and many believe they are used by political factions as a tool to deter women from protesting while simultaneously discrediting demonstrators. But the fact that the assaults occurred under Mubarak, the military, Morsi and the current interim president, Adly Mansour, suggest the problem may have far deeper roots.

And while the attacks are most prevalent and brutal in Tahrir, they also occur outside of a political context: In May, rights groups reported similar assaults at a pop concert in the coastal city of Ain Sokhna.

“The problem of sexual harassment and assault has been evident for a very long time,” says Amal Elmohandes, the director of the Women Human Rights Defenders programme. “They took place as far back as 2006 during Eid celebrations, at the metro stations or near the cinemas.”

In fact, a study by the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women released in April reported that 99.3 percent of Egyptian women have experienced some form of sexual harassment, while 96.5 percent have been subject to harassment in the form of touching.

But activists say the number of sexual assaults has increased post-revolution as there has been a surge in the number of women present in public spaces. Furthermore, Elmohandes says, “as society is more brutalised, people are increasingly expressing themselves through violent actions”.

‘Blaming the victim’

Increased opportunity and a traumatised population, however, does not fully explain the extent of the problem in Egypt. And the language used to describe the assaults reveals just how deeply embedded the problem is.

The word “taharush”, which means “harassment”, was only adopted in the context of sexual assault in the last decade. “Instead, people used to say ‘flirtation’ [‘mo’aksa’] – they sugar-coated the problem,” explains Mariam Kirollos, a women’s rights activist and volunteer with OpAntiSh.

The use of the term “flirtation” rather than harassment implies a consensual act, and contributes to an already entrenched culture of “blaming the victim”, as women are perceived to be somehow complicit.

Consequently, answering back is widely considered inappropriate in Egypt – and can, in some instances, provoke a violent reaction. When, in 2012, 16-year-old Eman Mostafa spat at the man who groped her breasts, her attacker shot her dead.

The roots of the problem, women’s rights activists say, are in the home. And with domestic violence and marital rape not considered crimes under Egyptian law, it is hard to change attitudes on the street.

Women’s rights groups had worked on legislation to criminalise domestic abuse, but this was shelved when Mubarak’s parliament was dissolved post-revolution. Since then there have been two further attempts. El-Nadeem Centre for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, an Egyptian NGO that offers legal and psychological support to victims of assault, drafted a law addressing domestic violence, marital rape and sexual violence against women. But the effort was abandoned when the parliament was again dissolved by the then-ruling military council last year.

Similar umbrella legislation put forward by the state-run National Council for Women this year was also put on hold when the Shura Council, Egypt’s upper house of parliament, was dismantled after Morsi was ousted. “Egypt is never stable enough for us to introduce these draft laws,” explains Farah Shash, a psychologist and researcher at El-Nadeem Centre.

As it stands, under Egyptian law sexual harassment is not criminialised, and rape by objects or hands is only classified as assault.

Shash says young boys are rarely reprimanded by their parents for harassing girls in public, and that it is not uncommon to see children speaking inappropriately to women as they mirror the adult behaviour around them. “Often, families will just laugh,” she says.

The issue is not addressed in schools either, where the curriculum reinforces traditional gender roles. “You’ll see textbook examples of girls helping their mother in the kitchen, while the boys are with their fathers at work. It sets this idea in kids’ minds that women are meant to be at home [and] men on the streets,” Shash says.

Talk to Al Jazeera – Ragia Omran : Abused in Egypt

These attitudes contribute to a sense that men have power over women, who in turn become commodities, activists say. “Women are dehumanised, their bodies can be tampered with,” explains Elmohandes.

A culture of impunity

There is also a culture of impunity at the state level, with assailants rarely facing any consequences for their actions.Baramawy filed a joint complaint with six other women about their sexual assaults in Tahrir before the Qasr el-Nil prosecution in March. Prosecutors were reportedly cooperative but they had no evidence: they kept asking women to identify their attackers, an impossible request with such large mobs.

And, according to Heba Morayef, the Egypt director of Human Rights Watch, the security forces compound the problem. “Both the police and the military have been involved in sexual violence against women. They get away with it, so there has been no accountability,” she says, noting that the military conducted forced virginity tests on female demonstrators in March 2011. Elmohandes says it has become socially unacceptable for a woman to even enter a police station because of the fear of being sexually harassed.

Successive governments have failed to prioritise fighting sexual violence against women. “The problem is always postponed until the political situation ‘settles down’,” notes Morayef.

In February, on the one occasion that sexual assault was addressed by the human rights committee of the Shura Council, members of the council blamed women for the attacks in Tahrir, suggesting that they should not attend protests. One committee member from a Salafist party, Adel Afifi, even declared: “The woman has 100 percent responsibility.”

For the sake of women and the sake of this country, this violence cannot continue.– Enjy Ghozlan, Anti-Sexual Harrassment Campaign spokesperson

Activists are pushing for streetlights to be placed in locations like Tahrir and are requesting that dedicated security forces units be set up to tackle the problem. But these are just partial steps. “This is not something that can be addressed from a piecemeal approach. It has to be a comprehensive strategy on behalf of the government,” Morayef says.

In the meantime, volunteers in grassroots campaigns are left to plug the gaps. The male and female volunteers at OpAntiSh not only attempt to rescue women from sexual assaults, they also run hotlines and document cases. Societal awareness campaign Harassmap tracks sexual harassment across Egypt using an online interactive map. Meanwhile, Kirollos says, a coalition of rights groups are working on drawing up key articles focusing on the protection of women for the country’s new constitution.

Although Tahrir has become a no-go area for some women, and protesters now cordon off those who do attend into gender-segregated pens, many survivors are joining movements to combat the violence. But they fear that without effective state institutions as Egypt again finds itself in political limbo, the issue will continue to be ignored – with devastating consequences for the country’s women.

“It is becoming more violent and increasing in number,” says OpAntiSh spokesperson Enjy Ghozlan. “For the sake of women and the sake of this country, this violence cannot continue.”

A make or break moment for Egypt’s President Morsi

New Statesman
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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.

Heba Morayef: A guardian of rights in post-revolutionary Egypt

AhramNominated for Time’s prestigious top 100 list, Human Rights Watch country director talks about the ongoing fight for freedoms in Egypt (VIDEO)
From antagonising ruling generals to eating doughnuts with Mubarak ministers, meet Human Rights Watch Egypt Director Heba Morayef, once described by a US radio station as Egypt’s guardian of human decency.

A familiar face of civil society, Morayef, who prefers to hide behind her work, was propelled into the spotlight when she was nominated for Time’s Top 100, alongside internationally renowned comedian Bassem Youssef and President Mohamed Morsi himself.

Although slightly embarrassed that her name appeared on the potential list of “most influential people in the world” Morayef does admit that her presence there is a good sign.

“I think it’s interesting that one of the people on that list is from the human rights community – that’s something that President Mohamed Morsi, if he ever hears about it, perhaps should think on,” Morayef says from the control room of HRW in Cairo’s walled-in district of Garden City.

Growing up in Alexandria, from an Egyptian-Australian background, Morayef realised early on that unless you were involved in the Muslim Brotherhood “there wasn’t much going on politically there.”

She moved to Cairo to study politics and went on to specialise in international law before segueing into human rights.

The Mubarak era

In the dark pre-revolution days of 2010, Morayef joined Human Rights Watch, the only organisation to have the dubious privilege of being allowed access to Egypt’s notorious jails.

Her first gig was the infamous 2010 parliamentary elections – one of the final straws that pushed the nation to revolt – during which she was largely helping the now-ruling Muslim Brotherhood.

Back then a banned group under attack, Morayef worked on securing the release of members of the Islamist group arrested while campaigning. The Brotherhood, she adds, were very active in pushing for human rights, a fact now she says is “fairly ironic.”

At that time rights groups had very little access to the presidency; however, Morayef is one of the few who met with the ruling elite.

“We had a very surreal meeting with the assistant minister of interior, state security investigations…. where they just gave us the party line while serving us doughnuts, which then were not easy to come by in Cairo.”

The ministry was typically unresponsive but Morayef says 2010 was a special year as discussions about human rights were at the centre, particularly after the brutal death of 28 year-old Alexandrian Khaled Said, which prompted sustained nationwide protests ultimately leading to revolution.

During those tumultuous 18 days, Morayef admits she went to Tahrir Square “as an Egyptian… but I’m no frontliner.”

After Mubarak’s ouster, what followed for the human rights community, Morayef says, was a brief honeymoon period then the start of an ongoing rollercoaster.

Fighting for rights under military rule

“In the immediate aftermath… there was a new openness towards human rights organisations,” she says, describing her excitement at entering Cairo’s infamous state television building for the first time.

She was interviewed by state-run channel Nile TV, a place that during the Mubarak-era would have never embraced those pushing a rights agenda.

Then, in an unprecedented move in 2011, Human Rights Watch was allowed to meet with the then-ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

The closed council of generals, who had never previously interacted with civil society groups, did not take kindly to Morayef’s agenda.

“We talked about military trials, torture and trials against journalists and virginity tests,” she explains. Their initial response to the sexual assault of detained female protesters by members of the armed forces was to admit to HRW that it was a “normal procedure” that “happens in all military prisons in Egypt.”

“They weren’t used to dealing with us, General Mohamed El-Assar [now assistant defence minister] lost his temper twice and started shouting during the meeting.”

After this and following a backlash from the rights community, the army denied the accusations of assault and the doctors accused of performing virginity tests were acquitted.

The tide had clearly changed.

In November that same year, security forces raided the offices of 17 NGOs and a trial began. Forty-three mainly Egyptian employees were in the dock on felony charges and still face potential seven-year jail sentences.

This saw an ongoing clampdown on foreign funding that has seen organisations close or be forced to let staff go, Morayef adds, crippling civil society in Egypt.


The Brotherhood moving forward

Morayef was cautiously optimistic in June 2012, when the news broke that Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi had won the presidential election.

“I was hopeful because when it comes to torture and military trials, those were the issues that the Brotherhood suffered from the most; that was the context that I came to know them.”

Morsi appeared to move in the right direction when he set up a fact-finding committee in July of the same year.

However, almost one year on, the committee’s 700-page report has yet to be made public. Instead, the committee was forced to leak sections of the report, which documents the authorities ordering the use of live ammunition in Suez among other abuses, to the media, sparking international uproar.

The real departure point for Morayef, however, was Morsi’s November Constitutional Declaration, which rendered all presidential decrees as well as the Constituent Assembly from judicial appeal.

“We started hearing Morsi use the language of [Mubarak-era minister of interior] Habib El-Adly. He was taking the side of the police, no question of accountability – there were many speeches saying that the police played an honourable role during the revolution.”

A few weeks later, the draft constitution, which had been the subject of bitter debate, was pushed through.

Morayef was one of the few commentators frantically monitoring the lengthy voting process during the constitution-drafting body’s final session.

“That day was an insult to Egypt… I had been tracking all the different drafts since November, I was informally engaged with some of the committee and we had been doing legal analysis,” she explains.

However in the final hour, new language was introduced. One of the worst examples of this for Morayef was Article 31, which prohibits insulting the individual: “it is that broad, and everyone clapped.”

Bogged down in syntactic details, “they were discussing the position of commas.”

Legislative landscape

The most immediate threat to the human rights community now, Morayef says, is new legislation.

Two controversial draft laws governing NGOs and demonstrations are currently being discussed by the Shura Council.

Morayef’s cutting analysis of the demonstration legislation, a report ironically commissioned by former justice minister Ahmed Mekki himself, led the Shura Council to accuse Human Rights Watch last month of “meddling in domestic affairs,” an allegation, Morayef said, that Mubarak would frequently use to protect the police state.

“It is surreal,” Morayef adds, “to be arguing in 2013 for the rights of civil society and freedom of association to exist.”

The current manifestation of the NGO law is, in Morayef’s words, deeply restrictive and endangers the ability of both international and Egyptian groups to operate in Egypt.

“The law requires international organisations to apply to a committee upon which the Egyptian General Intelligence sit,” Morayef explains. “Once registered you have to apply for permission for every activity, including renting an office or travelling out of Cairo.”

The NGO law itself has raised larger questions about the problems between the remnants of the deep state and the Brotherhood in government.

The initial draft discussed in parliament just before it was dissolved in 2012 was authored by the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and Morayef says was less restrictive. After all, she adds, the Islamist group themselves will have to register under it: the ultimate guarantee of progressive legislation.

However, the language of 2013 version, which was largely drafted by the Cabinet, Morayef says comes from the Ministry of Social Affairs.

“We’ve compared the two and [the current restrictive draft] is copied and pasted from a Ministry of Social Affairs law which is very much representative of the security establishment.”

Taking its toll – hope on the horizon?

Two years on after the 18 day-uprising which toppled Mubarak, Morayef predicts a deterioration in human rights moving forward.

NGOs continue to document widespread abuses, including extra-judicial killings, political prisoners, torture, excessive use of force by the security forces and a rising trend of sectarian violence.

Yet no steps have been taken towards resolving these issues.

For Morayef, managing the expectations of those she is trying to help has been the toughest side of the job. Fighting for justice for the families of those killed by security forces, she cites as an example, is a long-term battle that rights groups are struggling to win.

However, the human rights community, she believes, has helped Egypt gain serious ground.

The combined effort of rights groups and revolutionary campaigns like No Military Trials for Civilians in documenting and publicising military abuses, she believes, contributed to a shift from military to civilian rule.

There are tentative signs of change on the horizon.

“I don’t think there are any guarantees against a return to authoritarianism,” Morayef concludes, “but ultimately people are no longer afraid. I think that is out best guarantee of continued mobilisation for social justice.”

Police brutality in Egypt on rise

Click for Video: President Mohamed Morsi struggles to calm street violence engulfing Egypt. But as his supporters and opponents clash, rights groups report a rise in police abuse resulting in the abuse of minors.
Click for Video: President Mohamed Morsi struggles to calm street violence engulfing Egypt. But as his supporters and opponents clash, rights groups report a rise in police abuse resulting in the abuse of minors.