Egypt: Mass protests grow as military drags country back to dictatorship

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By Roger Annis

January 11, 2014 -- Truthout, posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with the permission and at the suggestion of the author -- The military-dominated regime that seized power in Egypt in July 2013 has escalated its attacks on freedom and democracy in the country. A series of pronouncements were issued in late December, including the banning of the country's largest political movement, the Muslim Brotherhood. By all evidence, Egypt's economic and military elite are taking the country back to the darkest days of the rule of former dictator Hosni Mubarak or even farther into the abyss.

The regime's new measures have been accompanied by regressive court decisions and assaults on protesting citizens by police and soldiers backed by plainclothes thugs. A harrowing prospect threatens the country -- that of a violent war by the regime and its backers against the population, similar to the bloody war that was waged by Algeria's government and military against the people of that country during the 1990s and 2000s.

Courageous protests by growing sections of Egyptian society are blocking the road of civil war that the regime seems hell-bent on taking. Civilian protest and organising offer hope that the country can return to a path of democracy and social justice that opened with the overthrow of Mubarak in February 2011.

Banning of the Muslim Brotherhood

In its most draconian political measure yet, on December 25, the regime announced a banning of the Muslim Brotherhood. The ban will be applied against the Brotherhood-led political party, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP). The two are being proscribed as "terrorist" organisations.

Membership in the organisations is grounds for harsh punishment. Members are banned from travel abroad. "Terrorism" charges will apply to anyone who finances or promotes the two organisations "verbally and in writing".

Hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood and FJP members have been arrested. The personal assets of many leaders have been seized by authorities, including those of the imprisoned Mohamed Morsi. He won the presidential election in Egypt in June 2012 on behalf of the Freedom and Justice Party. He was overthrown by the military on July 3, 2013. The coup unleashed a terrible wave of violence by the military regime that took power.

Publication of the Muslim Brotherhood's newspaper, Freedom and Justice, has been outlawed. Egypt's Interior Ministry has opened three telephone lines for citizens to snitch on their fellow citizens.

The government is preparing to seize schools operated by the movement and it says it will take over operations of Brotherhood-run hospitals and health centers. The regime also says it will take over all mosques belonging to banned organisations and replace their imams.

Interior Ministry spokesperson Hany Abdel Latif told state television that henceforth anyone taking part in protests organised by the two mass organisations will be jailed for lengthy terms, up to life imprisonment. And "the sentence could be death" for those who lead the Muslim Brotherhood.

Morsi has been imprisoned since July 3 and faces serious criminal charges. His show trial had a brief, opening session November 4 and is due to resume this month.

Pretext holds no water

A long list of pretexts was read out by regime Prime Minister Hazem El Beblawi on December 25 to justify the banning of the Muslim Brotherhood. These included an accusation that the group was behind the assassination of then-prime minister Mahmoud Nuqrashi more than 60 years ago.

The key accusation was responsibility for the bombing of a police station in the city of Mansoura on December 24. The bomb killed 16 and wounded more than 100. Mansoura is a city of half a million people 110 kilometers north of Cairo in the Nile River delta.

The police station also served as a jail. At the time of the bombing, it held dozens of prisoners detained for protesting the coup regime. Some of the prisoners were women.

Egyptian officials have provided no evidence that the Muslim Brotherhood was linked to the bombing. The organisation condemned the bombing and has called for its perpetrators to be brought to justice.

Human Rights Watch has condemned the banning of the Muslim Brotherhood and the pretext for doing so. It said the banning was politically driven. A statement said, "The government blamed the Muslim Brotherhood for the [December 24] blast without investigating or providing any evidence."

Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director of Human Rights Watch, said in the statement, "The government's decision on the Muslim Brotherhood follows over five months of government efforts to vilify the group. By rushing to point the finger at the Brotherhood without investigations or evidence, the government seems motivated solely by its desire to crush a major opposition movement."

Seven people were arrested January 2 for the bombing. The regime has provided no evidence that any are members of the Brotherhood or were acting under its direction.

The Human Rights Watch statement also reports that on December 23, Egypt's Central Bank froze the bank accounts of more than 1000 NGOs reportedly linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. Many of these organisations are essential providers of health care and education services.

Five days earlier, police stormed the office of the Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights and assaulted and arrested six people -- a staff researcher, staff lawyer and four volunteers. Equipment was broken and computers were stolen. A statement of protest against the raid was issued the following day by 25 Egyptian organisations (here).

One of the complicating factors for the regime is the fact that it has no legal definition of "terrorism" with which it can charge or convict its opponents.

Attacks on protests

The proscriptions by the coup regime follow months of low-intensity war in the streets of the country against opponents of the July coup. Half a year on, the generals have failed to establish the "order" and "normalcy" they promised. The price of protesting is high, and many have been killed or injured, but the protests continue.

Street protests, general strikes in neighbourhoods and cities, massive student actions, some strikes by workers and many other forms of struggle have weakened the regime.

The regime has struck out fiercely. While there has been no repeat of the terrible massacres that marked July and August 2013, including the very worst at the Rabaa Al-Adawiyya Mosque on August 14, killings by regime thugs as well as arrests and beatings have continued. The scale of the repression has far outstripped the rights violations committed during the declining years of the Mubarak regime.

A new regime weapon is a special law against the right to protest adopted in November. A first, major test of that law concluded December 22 with the conviction of three activists of the April 6 Youth Movement -- Ahmed Maher, Ahmed Douma and Mohamed Adel. They are well-known symbols of the democracy movement. It arose in 2010 and played a key role in the overthrow of the Mubarak dictatorship.

The three were convicted and sentenced to prison labour and fines. (A detailed examination by Human Rights Watch of the new law banning protests is here.)

The Muslim Brotherhood and the Anti-Coup Pro-Legitimacy National Alliance have issued a statement condemning the conviction of the three young activists. The alliance is the broad coalition that has spearheaded the ongoing protest movement against the military regime.

A broad coalition of human rights groups in Egypt issued a statement in November condemning the anti-protest law.

Ahmed Maher, a founder of the April 6 movement, lashed out at Egypt's National Council of Human Rights in a note smuggled out of prison December 18. His note harshly criticised members of the Council.

Maher charged that some members of the council were "agents for the state who used to report about activists to security before the revolution". He wrote further, "There is no difference between this council and Mubarak's mock councils."

The Middle East Monitor has broadcast and transcribed into English an interview with Maher in which the activist reflects very critically on the Tamarod movement, in which the April 6 Movement participated. He says it was a mistake to take part in the mass demonstration June 30, 2013, that called for the removal of Morsi. That action was understood by his movement to be a call for "correction" of the course of the Morsi government, not its overthrow by the military. "We do not deny that Morsi did wrong... But what is happening now is seriously a return to the old regime... Everything we rose against in the January 25 revolution is back and is even worse than before." The interview is undated.

The MENA Solidarity Network is reporting that six activists in Alexandria, including two members of the Revolutionary Socialists, have just been sentenced to two years of hard labour and fines for contesting the same law.

Three other activists are facing convictions for political accusations dating back to 2012 in a case being followed closely by Amnesty International. One of them, Ahmed Abdallah, was also a prominent member of the April 6 Youth Movement.

Students particularly targeted

Students have waged especially courageous and sustained protests against the coup regime. Breaking with past precedent, the regime repeatedly has invaded campuses with its repressive forces. But students are continuing their resistance.

Campuses across the country once again were rocked by protest December 27, this time against the decision to ban the Muslim Brotherhood. Students joined a national day of protest that day called by the Anti-Coup Alliance.

The regime lashed out, killing some 19 people that day, including three students. Women students at Al-Azhar University in Cairo came under attack by pro-regime thugs (see a short video here). Some university buildings in Cairo were torched.

In response to the attack at Al-Azhar, the group Students Against the Coup organised a march to the campus the following day. Madr Masa reports that they protested at entrances to the university against the holding of exams in the violent climate created by the regime. Once again, police and thugs attacked. Some 60 students were arrested.

Youssof Salhen, 21, spokesperson for Students Against the Coup, told the UK Observer that 14 of those arrested on Saturday were women. He said, "We are not going to stop [protesting] until we achieve justice for those who have died and those who have been jailed. The security forces and the coup forces will continue to try to frighten students for trying to exercise their rights to peaceful protest, but we will continue."

Crackdown on journalists

Press freedom is under heavy attack. Journalists at the banned newspaper of the Freedom and Justice Party have taken their campaign to reopen the newspaper to the Press Syndicate, the union of journalists in Egypt. The syndicate has opposed the banning, saying that the FJP is a legitimate political party that cannot be banned on a whim.

Back in September, the syndicate voiced solidarity with journalists following a police raid on the newspaper offices. (See an essay on the history of Egypt's Press Syndicate here.)

Also condemning the newspaper banning is the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression. It says the measure is a "blatant assault on freedom of expression".

Four journalists of Al Jazeera’s English broadcast were arrested at the news agency’s office in a hotel in Cairo on the night of Dec. 29. One was later released. Three are charged with belonging to a terrorist organisation, including bureau chief Mohamed Fadel Fahmy and veteran correspondent Peter Greste. Fahmy is a Canadian citizen, and his detention was reported in the Toronto Star on January 7 by the Cairo-based journalist Sharif Abdel Kouddous. Greste is Australian.

The Arab Network For Human Rights Information (ANHRI), a Cairo-based human rights watchdog, has condemned the Egyptian regime for the Al Jazeera arrests and for "ongoing use of gag policy". Press freedom organisations internationally also have called for the release of the three.

Two other Al Jazeera journalists, Abdulla al-Shami and Mohamed Badr, have been held without charge for more than five months.

Constitutional referendum

The regime is revising Egypt's post-Mubarak constitution that was approved in a referendum in December 2012. They will put the revised document to a referendum January 14-15. Among many regressive measures in it, the revised document will remove civilian oversight of the military, require that the defense minister be a military officer, and fully restore trials of civilians by military courts.

The Freedom and Justice Party and the Anti-Coup Alliance have announced they will boycott the constitution referendum. So, too, will the April 6 Youth Movement and other political parties and social movements. (For a detailed look at the proposed constitution, see this analysis by FIDH.)

Human rights organisations and a broad cross-section of Egyptian society have long demanded an end to military trials of civilians.

Peaceful but uncompromising resistance

The Anti-Coup Alliance has, from the outset, affirmed that it will wage peaceful but unrelenting opposition to the regime. It rejects armed resistance. Anti-coup resistance is growing as social and economic conditions deteriorate and the regime demonstrates that it is utterly bereft of plans to move the country forward. It has only violence and dictatorship to offer.

The sustained civil protests have encouraged growing sections of the population to see through the phony claim by Egypt's elite and sections of the country's middle class that the coup represented some kind of "salvation" for the nation from Islam-inspired political movements.

Egyptians hope and quite reasonably expect that world opinion will support their struggle for democracy. But the big powers of the world are playing coy, quietly backing the regime while at the same time keeping some distance to avoid being tainted with the worst of its abuses.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced December 24 that he was "seriously concerned" about the deteriorating human rights situation. He has made no announcement about the banning of the Muslim Brotherhood and related measures.

The US State Department stated a "concerned" posture at a news briefing December 30. Canada has said nothing.

Back in August in an online story in the Ottawa Citizen that has since been removed from the newspaper site, minister of foreign affairs John Baird spoke about the July coup to reporters while visiting a Coptic church in Ottawa. He said, "The former president became autocratic and did not want to build a peaceful, inclusive society".

He went on, "We're certainly not calling for them to be restored to power." (See a report on Baird's statement by the present author included here in an August 2013 news posting.)

Canada's statements on Egypt have been limited to cautionary calls upon unnamed agencies in Egypt to cease "violence". At the time of the July coup against the elected president and government, Baird smoothly stated, "Canada urges all parties in Egypt to remain calm, avoid violence and engage in meaningful political dialogue."

Leading members of the Muslim Brotherhood are seeking to convince the International Criminal Court in The Hague to prefer charges of crimes against humanity against the coup regime.

The big powers' aloofness to the ongoing assaults on people and democracy is a sharp contrast to the hailing of the "Tamarod" movement in the spring and summer of 2013. The quite legitimate grievances of many participants in that movement against the government of President Morsi were cynically manipulated to help set the stage for the coup.

Sara Khorshid, an Egyptian journalist, recently penned a commentary in The New York Times about Egypt's counter-revolution. She writes about the illusions of her fellow citizens in believing that the July 2013 coup and army rule could bring improvement to the country. Her views are also a useful reminder to those actors outside Egypt whose dislike of a Muslim Brotherhood-led government clouded their political judgment and their defence of democratic rights for all.

Khorshid concludes her commentary, "Ultimately, those who saw the military as a better alternative to the Brotherhood will realise the magnitude of injustice that the military's wide-ranging authorities could bring to all aspects of Egyptian life."

[The MENA Solidarity Network is urging concerned people to sign a petition it has initiated against the anti-protest law in Egypt. The petition is here. You can also download a print version to circulate. The names of signatories will be delivered to the Egyptian Embassy in the UK on January 25, 2014.

[The Egyptian-Canadian Coalition for Democracy is holding activities across Canada to build solidarity with the Egyptian people, including a public forum in Vancouver on January 25. Read about its work on its web site, The coalition is a co-founder of the recently launched Egyptians Worldwide for Democracy and Justice. Read its founding statement here.]