Claims of attack by Egypt’s police grow
|Tuesday, January 31,2006 00:00|
|By Hannah Allam, Washington Bureau|
Activists say abuse prevents reformBy Hannah AllamWashington Bureau1/83/8
CAIRO, Egypt | Despite a widely publicized campaign to loosen the grip of authoritarian rule, Egypt’s vast and secretive security forces appear to have stepped up retaliation against political activists who challenge the status quo.
President Hosni Mubarak’s government, one of America’s closest allies in the Arab world and the recipient of some $2 billion annually in U.S. aid, earned praise last fall for holding the country’s first contested presidential elections. Political activists say reports of police attacks continue to pour in from a wide variety of groups, including opposition political figures, Islamist organizers, journalists and voters.
The complaints raise questions about the likelihood of success for the Bush administration’s high-profile campaign to promote democracy, civil liberties and human rights in the Arab world. Egypt, long a center of Muslim thought, is the most populous Arab nation and enjoys an image as a tourist-friendly, benign country with a flourishing opposition press and frequent anti-government demonstrations.
But Egyptian activists say the more they try to take advantage of cracks in Mubarak’s 24-year grip on the nation, the more the security force beats them back.
Many of the abuse allegations are directed at Central Security, a SWAT-like commando force originally trained to take down terrorists and bust major drug traffickers. As the Egyptian government began to allow opposition groups greater freedom, Central Security’s portfolio grew to include crowd control at demonstrations.
Egyptian officials say the security forces are still learning how to respond to large public demonstrations and other anti-government activism. But political activists think the abuse is intended to prevent real democratic reform.
American officials, who have cited Egypt’s multicandidate elections as a milestone in the U.S. effort to push democracy in the Middle East, have shown concern recently over the pace of reform. This month, the U.S. delayed trade talks with Egypt to express dismay over election violence and a prison sentence handed to an opposition politician, according to officials.
Female activists and journalists accused the security forces of ripping off their clothes, molesting them and threatening rape.
The allegations are not limited to activists. Others who have complained of excessive force at the hands of Egypt’s security forces include soccer spectators beaten for unruly behavior, criminal suspects under interrogation and families who said they were beaten back when they tried to reach loved ones trapped in a fire at a Cairo theater.
The Interior Ministry declined to make officials available for interviews about police brutality, though it has issued statements previously saying assault complaints are exaggerated.
The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights has received complaints of abuse against protesters, complaints that seemed to swell after each of Egypt’s democratic milestones of the past year, which included a constitutional referendum last May and the multicandidate presidential vote in September.
In late November, the three-round parliamentary elections began. There were few reports of police violence before the first round, when Mubarak’s party was confident.
That changed after the Muslim Brotherhood, a banned Islamist group whose members were allowed to run as independents, made a surprisingly strong showing.
Fighting broke out among supporters of opposing candidates during the second round, with security forces arresting more than 800 Muslim Brotherhood supporters. At least one demonstrator died in the clashes.