Foreign Policy Blogs

Guest Post: Egypt After the Revolution

By Atef Said

I got on a plane to Cairo on February 4, ten days after Egyptians took to the streets in a popular revolution that eventually led to the ouster of notorious dictator Hosni Mubarak. I had mixed emotions when leaving for Egypt: anxiety about the family I was leaving behind and about my relatives in Egypt, anger against the Mubarak regime for their violent assaults on peaceful protestors in the streets. My frustration with all those who supported a dictator for 30 years clashed with my admiration of Egyptian protestors who risked their lives to throw off three decades of repression.

By the time I left Egypt in April, after two heady, tumultuous months, the real work of the revolution was just beginning. President Hosni Mubarak had ceded power to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces in Egypt (SCAF) on February 11, but nascent democratic reforms were under threat by the persistence of emergency law, repressive new anti-union measures, inadequate legal reform, and a near-total lack of accountability for the 850 protesters killed during the revolution, the 1500 people injured, and continuing human rights abuses.

During the many meetings I attended with my human rights colleagues in Egypt, consensus on two key issues emerged. The first is that security reform in Egypt cannot be left to the transitional government, nor can it be limited to dissolving the State Security Intelligence (SSI), the reviled agency that carried out the worst human rights abuses of the Mubarak regime. True reform must be a broad-based process that involves Egypt’s civil society. The second regards the timing of reforms during the transitional period. While most activists agree that it would be better for permanent legal reforms to come from a newly elected parliament rather than from the SCAF or the transitional government, they also believe some reforms cannot wait until the elections scheduled to take place in September 2011. First and foremost, the 30-year-long state of emergency must be lifted immediately in order to stop the widespread human rights abuses it enables: torture, arbitrary detention, military trials, and the repression of free expression. This is one of the key reforms that Amnesty International has called for in its April report, Time for Justice: Egypt’s Corrosive System of Detention, and it is fundamental to the fight to establish human rights in a country denied them for three decades.

When I first arrived in Cairo I was overwhelmed by the daily protests in Tahrir Square. Activists were being targeted physically, en masse, and it was nearly impossible for me to do any human rights work or provide legal assistance to those who were detained. At least 300 activists had been detained, many in unknown places. A five-day Internet blackout had just been lifted. Security agents were targeting human rights groups, as well as most independent media outlets, and the day before I arrived, army police and SSI personnel had raided the Hisham Mubarak Law Center (HMLC) in Cairo and arrested 30 activists, journalists and lawyers (two Amnesty International researchers were also among those detained). Most detainees were released immediately following a global outcry, including an Amnesty International Urgent Action, but three of my attorney colleagues, as well as a researcher from HMLC, were detained for 48 hours.

On March 30, the SCAF announced an interim constitution that includes new guarantees of human rights and liberties and affirms the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary. Some reforms were wholeheartedly endorsed by activists, such as the limit on presidential terms to two four-year periods and limits on presidential powers to declare or expand emergency status. Others, however, such as the consolidation of both legislative and presidential powers in the SCAF-which will continue to hold these powers until Egypt elects a new parliament and president-were greeted with alarm. The most urgent constitutional problem was the continued application of emergency law, a provision that has given unlimited authority to officials in Egypt since Mubarak became president in 1981. When the SCAF first assumed power, it announced that the emergency status would end before the upcoming elections, but at press time, the Ministry of Interior is proposing to extend the emergency status until after both the parliamentary and presidential elections-ostensibly in order to address sectarian violence, thuggery, the intentional destruction of public and private property, and resistance to the authorities.

After the storm of the revolution, the early days of the transitional period were filled with jubilation. Within two days of Mubarak’s concession in early February, the SCAF announced that it was committed to transferring authority to a newly elected parliament and civilian government in six months, or as soon as these bodies could be formed. In the same statement, SCAF announced it would “freeze” the application of the Egyptian Permanent Constitution of 1971 and dissolve the Egyptian Parliament-a body that had been marred by major fraud during the 2010 election. On March 19, following a period of intense debate, 70 percent of the Egyptian people voted in a public referendum to change eight articles of the Egyptian constitution and cancel a provision used to support a controversial counterterrorism law. Although democracy activists had suggested that amendments to the 1971 constitution would not be sufficient, Egyptians were clamoring for an immediate expansion of civil and political liberties, free elections, and economic and social reforms.

Amnesty International has called for an immediate end to the state of emergency and the repeal of all provisions of emergency law. AI’s April report documents the continuing use of torture, arbitrary detention, trials of civilians before military courts, and repression of freedom of expression by authorities. Although senior jurists and human rights groups have denounced Mubarak-era military trials, some 7,000 civilians have already been tried under similar conditions during the transitional period, according to human rights attorneys observing the trials in Egypt. In some cases, trials take place without the presence of lawyers. In most cases when lawyers are allowed, military judges give them limited time-sometimes as little as 24 hours-to examine documents and evidence against their clients and to present their defense. In one trial, the military prosecutor stated that Egypt has been considered a large military zone since January 28. Although the SCAF and government officials assert that most military trials deal with common criminals who endanger public security, evidence shows that many of those who have been tried are in fact protestors, journalists, and artists.

Egypt’s emergency law also restricts the right to peacefully assemble and associate. Under Mubarak this right was almost banned, and emergency status could be applied without exception to any peaceful protest or assembly. Yet while the transitional authorities have shown greater tolerance toward demonstrations, both military and civilian police have attacked peaceful protests on several occasions, resulting in no less than 100 injuries and six deaths, according to activists who were present. These numbers do not include injuries or deaths caused by “armed thugs,” who activists suspect are agents of the old regime. I witnessed special army forces attack demonstrators, some with electric batons, during the forceful evacuations of Tahrir Square on February 26, and activists I spoke with confirmed the presence of these forces in the attack on protestors during the violent evacuation of April 9. Central State Security forces-known for their brutality toward protestors-were also involved in the April 9 attack, marking their first appearance since the revolution began.

According to the official narrative, these protests and another on March 9 had violated curfew, and most of the protestors were violent rather than peaceful protestors. However, many protestors and human rights observers deny this accusation. Except for the April 9 incident, when some armed men appeared in Tahrir area, all of the demonstrations in Tahrir Square have been peaceful. SCAF issued an official apology for the excessive use of violence on February 26, and promised an open investigation after the April 9 attack. But it did not acknowledge formally the peaceful nature of these protests. The SCAF also denied the use of live ammunition in its crackdown on April 9, instead blaming “thugs belonging to the former regime.” The results of the SCAF investigation of these events have not been released to the public.

The AI report also documents the continued use of arbitrary detentions and the use of physical punishment and torture-human rights abuses for which emergency law provides cover. According to the AI report, “After the army violently cleared Tahrir Square of demonstrators on March 9, women protesters told Amnesty International that they were beaten, given electric shocks, subjected to strip searches, then forced to submit to ‘virginity checks’ and threatened with prostitution charges.” Although there has been no comprehensive documentation of the number of people arbitrarily detained during the transitional period, activists report many such incidents.

Activists, both men and women, testified to this effect at a press conference I attended at the Egyptian Press Syndicate on March 16. Journalist Rasha Azzab stated that she was subjected to severe physical and psychological humiliation while detained, and she and others stated that nearly all of the 177 who were arrested on March 9 were subjected to ill-treatment. Ali Sobhi, an actor, and Ramy Essam, called by many activists the singer of the revolution, were among those who were beaten. In their testimonies, the activists said that most of the ill-treatment took place in a makeshift detention center behind the Egyptian National Museum near Tahrir Square.

The fact that the new political landscape is volatile is in no small part due to the elements of the former regime that remain in power. On March 15, the SCAF dissolved the SSI, replacing it with a new agency called the National Security Sector (NSS), tasked with a limited mission that includes counterterrorism and combating spying. The NSS retains some 25 percent of the officers from the SSI, including a former general, and most of these officers have been accused of torture, according to blogger and activist Hossam El-Hamalawy.

Navigating this new political landscape, with its constantly shifting boundaries of acceptable political expression, can be dangerous work. Micheal Nabil Sanad, a 26-year-old blogger, was detained for a blog post criticizing the SCAF; Nabil had published pictures demonstrating military abuse of protestors as well as reports about the military aiding police with live ammunition during the revolution. On April 9, 2011, a military court sentenced him to three years in prison-one of the most serious violations of the right to free expression to occur during the transitional period.

There have been other ominous examples of the transitional government restricting free expression, which has become one of the most pressing concerns of Egypt’s human rights activists. In March the SCAF sent an order to media outlets instructing them to request permission before publishing any news about the SCAF. Less than two months later, journalist and activist Bothayna Kamel-who has announced her candidacy in the upcoming presidential election-was interrogated and accused of “defamation” by the Military Prosecution Office for reporting on incidents of torture by the military police. And on May 19, the Military Prosecution Office investigated reporters from El-Shorouk, as well as the managing editor, for reports the paper had published earlier about Mubarak and his alleged request for the SCAF to grant him amnesty. Although the reporters were released, they were ordered not to publish anything about the SCAF without first requesting permission from military officials.

In response to unrelenting pressure from Egyptian activists, the SCAF has introduced a few reforms to address longstanding human rights concerns. A new law regulating political parties eliminates most of the restrictive conditions of the law it replaces, the most important of which was oversight by an administrative committee of government officials (chaired by the secretary general of the ruling party during the last years of Mubarak’s rule). The new law forms a committee composed of judges from Egyptian supreme courts who have only limited powers over political parties. The new law also contains key reforms designed to prevent the growth of sectarian parties and paramilitarism. While activists have criticized aspects of this reform-a requirement that new parties have 5,000 members, for example-it is an undeniably radical departure from the former government’s nearly total control over political organizations.

The SCAF has also addressed trade unions’ freedom to organize. The Egyptian Minister of Manpower and Immigration issued a declaration-on March 12, during a visit by International Labor Organization Director Juan Somavia-guaranteeing the right to free union organizing. The minister announced that this declaration would be part of a larger set of reforms to trade union laws. Social and economic rights activists say this is a critically important legal development in economic rights, even if it does little more than acknowledge the success of trade unions created before and directly after the revolution.

This reform is simultaneously undermined, however, by a new law that bans worker strikes during the transitional period and imposes a maximum sentence of one year in prison plus fines of up to US$ 85,000 for any person who calls for or incites such actions. The Center for Trade Union and Workers’ Services criticized the law as a violation of Article 8 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; the center was joined by 32 Egyptian human rights organizations and political parties, as well as by a coalition of labor movements. Nonetheless, the SCAF and the transitional government enacted the law and enforced it by using armored vehicles on April 7 against 3,200 workers striking outside the Shbeen El-Koum textile plant to demand a living wage. Workers complained to human rights groups that army personnel also fired gun shots into the air. These incidents provide abundant evidence to me and my human rights colleagues that the reforms passed so far are superficial and perhaps crafted to silence dissent while preserving the status quo.

As human rights organizations and civil society groups work to advance true reform-the rights they fought for in Tahrir Square and all over Egypt-they must contend with an ill-defined yet powerful military state. Even before the implementation of the interim constitution, scholars had raised questions about the legitimacy of the SCAF’s administration of power in Egypt, despite the agency’s claim that it is legitimized by the Egyptian people. A few days after the SCAF assumed authority on February 12, one member told the media that the SCAF was not ruling Egypt, but only administering it. SCAF members have repeated the same claim in the media numerous times. Yet after the interim constitution was implemented, the SCAF became the authority that holds both legislative and presidential powers. Colleagues in the human rights community have also raised concerns about signs that the military state may be amassing power, evidenced by the increased role of army detectives and army police in the arrests of civilians. We human rights activists dreamed of the day we would see Hosni Mubarak go on trial in civilian courts, and the May 24 announcement by Egypt’s top prosecutor that Mubarak will be tried for conspiring to kill unarmed protestors, as well as for corruption, is cause for celebration. Yet the impending prosecutions will present a serious test to Egyptian judiciary, which was under the influence of the executive authority and security forces while Mubarak was in power. Indeed, the prosecutor who announced the charges is a Mubarak appointee, and the prosecution is widely considered to be a response to the unrelenting public demand for accountability.

Before I left Egypt, several of my friends in the human rights movement spoke of a collective exhaustion from the overwhelming task of documenting and fighting the rampant abuses of the transitional period. Yet they know all too well that continued mass protest is the only leverage they have to pressure the CAF to change, and they vow to keep fighting for true reform.

Atef Said is a human rights activist who practiced human rights law in Egypt from 1995 to 2004. He is author of Torture in Egypt: A Judicial Reality (2000), published by the Human Rights Center for the Assistance of Prisoners, and Torture Is a Crime Against Humanity (2008), published by the Hisham Mubarak Law Center. Both organizations are based in Cairo. Said is currently a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Michigan.

This article was published in the Spring/Summer 2011 Amnesty International magazine for AIUSA membership. It appears here with their permission.



Kimberly J. Curtis

Kimberly Curtis has a Master's degree in International Affairs and a Juris Doctor from American University in Washington, DC. She is a co-founder of The Women's Empowerment Institute of Cameroon and has worked for human rights organizations in Rwanda and the United States. You can follow her on Twitter at @curtiskj

Areas of Focus: Transitional justice; Women's rights; Africa