Thursday, March 31, 2011

Egypt’s Army Being Severely Tested: Can Brutal Old Habits Be Unlearned?

By William Fisher

Ever since January 25, when the Tahrir Square demonstrations started, I have been baffled at the precise role of the army. Ambivalence and indecision seemed to be their mantra. But as the pro-democracy demonstrations progressed, the protesters were seen embracing the soldiers and their tanks. I was told this was because of the great respect the Egyptian people have for their military.

Several days into the protests, the demonstrators were attacked by gangs with machetes, petrol bombs, rocks, even horses and camels. That was the first point that I was aware of the Army stepping in to protect the demonstrators and drive the pro-Mubarak folks out of the Square.

Since that time, I’m sorry to report that Egypt’s interim military rulers have been guilty of a host of crimes formerly associated only with the dreaded security apparatus of Egypt’s ousted dictator, Hosni Mubarak. But unlike Mubarak, the army is now responding quickly to public protests and international media attention.

And it is responding because human rights activists have learned how to work with international media and with social networking platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and You Tube that expose – or threaten to expose – Mubarak’s legacy of brutality which is apparently alive and well in the country’s military prisons.

One black-humorist said the military police fear CNN more than a gang of rock-throwing Mubarak supporters.”

For example, the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) has agreed to retry a protester, Mohamed Adel, and to investigate highly publicized allegations that female protesters were given “virginity tests” and tortured in other ways as well. Treatment of the women detainees was shown on television throughout the world and has reportedly been a major embarrassment for the army.

The protester, arrested on January 28, was charged with vandalism and thuggery and sentenced to five years in prison in a hurried military trial.

The military also promised to investigate whether some women demonstrators arrested by the military on March 9 were tortured after soldiers broke up a sit-in at Tahrir Square.

SCAF’s statement said that Adel's retrial was considered because of grievances sent to the military by his mother, who also publicized the issue using social media. The Associated Press reported that Adel's mother and supporters spearheaded the movement mainly through social networks and a Facebook group.

It remains to be seen whether others still in custody, such as Amr Al-Bihary, 33, arrested on February 26 and sentenced to five years, will also be granted a retrial.

Another protester, Amr Eissa, will also have his case reviewed by SCAF. Eissa is an Ain Shams University student, who was sentenced to three years imprisonment. The review was triggered by protests from Eissa’s fellow university students.

Eissa was arrested in Tahrir Square on March 9, when the military decided to disperse the sit-in that started during Egypt’s revolution, occupying Cairo’s central square and eventually leading to the ouster of the former president on 11 February. Demonstrations have continued to occupy the square in an effort to win respect for the remainder of the protesters’ demands.

The protests resulted in a statement from SCAF trying to reassure the public that the armed forces were only interested in targeting “thugs.” The statement professed the military’s respect for “free youth.” But some observers believe that mass arrests by the military police suggest that the army’s top brass is not fully in charge of those lower down in the ranks.

Since former President Hosni Mubarak stepped down on February 11, Egyptians have been living under martial law, which allows for quick military trials.

Egypt’s human rights organizations and individual activists have catalyzed their resources to pressure the military to reconsider the cases of at least 150 people. These men and women, mostly young, were among Tahrir Square’s ardent demonstrators. Their trials have been in military courts, and many of them allegedly suffered torture at the hands of the military police.

Another protester, Ali Sobhi, is among those released after being jailed by the military and allegedly tortured. Again, in his case, activists mobilized to raise a loud unified voice demanding his release.

“It was the media pressure that got him out,” said activist Mona Seif, an activist, blogger and post-graduate student in cancer research at Cairo University. Her father, a lawyer for the pro-democracy forces, was arrested.

Along with other independent activists and human rights organizations, such as the Hisham Mubarak Law Center and the Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, Seif has focused on this issue through an initiative called “No to military tribunals.”

She believes that international media pressure, combined with social media such as Facebook and Twitter, has played a huge role forcing the military to focus on its own abuses and shortcomings.

But for the Egyptian public, it’s a harder sell. As was seen in the early days of the Tahrir Square demonstrations, Egyptians hold their army in very high respect. The army is still being given deference because of its role in the Tahrir Square uprisings.

Seif told the Associated Press, “People and the media need to understand that there’s a big difference between confronting the Armed Forces and bringing to their attention -- as an institution we all respect -- some of the mistakes that may have emerged from their ranks.”

“The issue of the girls’ torture was picked up by international media and human rights organizations. That had a big role to play in pushing the military to investigate them, according to their statement,” Seif said.

But the Egyptian military is a huge organization and it is not always clear that orders from commanders are received, understand and carried out by rank and file.

For example, we will probably never know who exactly gave orders to the army to detain five protesters during a demonstration calling for the release of thousands from military prisons.

Three of the five were later released, but two were transferred to military prosecution. According to witnesses, over fifty soldiers surrounded the demonstration and chased protesters away while arresting five. Later, the military violently broke up the Tahrir strike and detained many protesters who later testified to having been severely tortured inside the Egyptian Museum.

Meanwhile, former detainees gathered at a conference to recount their experiences in military detention and accused the army of torture and inhumane tactics. The armed forces have vehemently denied all accusations.

Protesters arrested by the military police during its March 9 evacuation of the Tahrir Square sit-in spoke of their torture and humiliation while in military custody.

An army official, speaking with the (Egypt) Daily News on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, denied these accusations, saying that the military did not detain anyone on March 9.

But according to Adel Ramadan, lawyer with the Front to Defend Egyptian Protesters, 173 were detained on that day; some were released on the same day while others were sentenced to prison. Of those sentenced, some have had their sentences suspended. About 150 are still behind bars, he said.

Actor Ali Sobhy was taken to the military prison on March 9 and but later released by military prosecution. "I was calling lawyers to report detention cases in front of the Egyptian Museum when an army officer took me inside and started beating me severely," said Sobhy.

"I previously had an operation in my lung, but they did not care about this and started beating me everywhere."

Sobhy said that when they were taken to the military prison, cameras filmed them, identifying them as thugs after putting guns and knives in front of them.

"When army officials saw my long hair and knew that I was an actor, they started beating me, saying I wasn’t a man, and insulted me. This was extremely humiliating."

A journalist gave an account of her detention and also criticized the lack of media coverage.

"Media after January 25 is even more restricted than what we were used to before the revolution," said journalist Rasha Azab, who was arrested by the military on March 9.

"As a journalist, I cannot publish my testimony in my newspaper, that's why I had to publish it on the Internet."

Azab said that she was beaten inside the Egyptian Museum.

"There were around 30 women handcuffed and beaten by the army officers inside the museum, and I heard screams of other men who were being tortured in other rooms."

Azab said that she was released, but alleged that thousands were still detained in the military prison and no one knew anything about them.

"We only arrested those who attempted to harm other people or harass women. These videos [in which released activists recount their torture] are for sure fake; the army cannot torture anyone, with or without orders," said the anonymous army source.

"There are people who are trying to create rifts between the army and the people, just because they do not like the army."

Families of other protesters who were still in military custody also recounted their ordeal at the press conference. One of them was the mother of Waleed Samy Saad who was arrested on March 9.

"Waleed protested in Tahrir because he could not find a job. He wanted a better life for himself and for us, so he went to Tahrir to demand his rights," said Samy’s mothers in tears.

"Protesters who got out of the military prison told me about my polite son who has never violated the law. My son is not a thug; my son is a freedom seeker."

She said she did not know where her son was, and didn’t know what to bring him back.

In another happening, after hundreds of protesters barged into Egypt’s state security offices in both Cairo and Alexandria, locked up prisoners were found and freed.

Protesters started hearing calls for help from under the ground when they stormed the state security office in Alexandria. The protestors reportedly released from one of the office’s tunnel cells a prisoner that has been there for 20 years. This has not so far been confirmed.

It has been said that the death of the young Egyptian activist Khaled Said in Alexandria’s state security branch was a major catalyst in sparking the January 25 revolution that ousted the regime of former President Hosni Mubarak.

Said was working in a public Internet case, when a gang of police dragged him out and beat him to death in the street.

In Cairo, an activist named Abdul-Aziz called the Prosecutor General and asked him to look for the designer of the State Security office so we could find others detained in the secret cells. In the state security headquarters in eastern Cairo, protestors also heard voices and managed to release 14 women and 25 men from secret cells, said Zakaria Abdul-Aziz, former head of the Judges Club.

“I called the Prosecutor General and asked him to look for the designer of the state security office so we can find others detained in the secret cells,” he said in an interview with an Egyptian satellite channel.

Abdul-Aziz also aims to get the documents that were taken from the Cairo State Security headquarters to hand the classified materials to the army to allow the military police to take the building over until it is entrusted to the general prosecution.

According to Abdul-Aziz, secret underground cells are not only exclusive to State Security offices, but there are many others at the Ministry of Interior, prison facilities, and Central Security camps.

“We demand that the truth about secret underground cells be known now to everybody.”

The size of one of these cells does not exceed a meter and a half. They are usually pitch dark, very poorly ventilated, extremely damp, and smelly, said a reporter from the Egyptian newspaper al-Youm al-Sabea, one of the five given permission by the army to take a tour in the State Security building in Lazoghli in downtown Cairo.

Like the interior minister’s office at the eastern Cairo headquarters, the offices of State Security officers are luxurious with adjacent bedrooms and fancy bathrooms.

Hell Room Protestors stormed eastern Cairo headquarters looking for documents and prisoners The National Democratic Party, which was the ruling party before the military took over, has its Hell Room as well.

This room, former Interior Minister Habib al-Adly said, houses evidence of the violations committed by all senior officials in the country and supported by audio and video.

In the interrogation, Adly said that both Safwat al-Sharif, former speaker of the Consultative Assembly, Egypt’s higher house of parliament, and Gamal Mubarak, Hosni Mubarak’s son, were aware of the existence of this room.

Derini who speculates that he has been detained at the state security headquarters in eastern Cairo, said that he spent his detention time with bare feet and chained hands.

He added that he was exposed to several forms of torture like laying him down on a wet long chair then connecting his limbs to electricity and sitting him on an electrocuted chair.

A report from Amnesty International reinforces this testimony. A former prisoner recounts:

“The detainees had been rounded up as part of a crackdown on anti-government protesters in the days before the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on Feb. 11. After Mubarak’s fall, the military took charge and promised to transfer power to a civilian government in coming months. Amnesty International, the London-based human rights group, urged the military to halt mistreatment in its lockups and release all protesters still in detention.

"The Egyptian military authorities have committed publicly to creating a climate of freedom and democracy after so many years of repression," said Amnesty’s regional director, Malcolm Smart. "Now they must match their words with direct action."

A military spokesman rejected Amnesty’s allegations of abuse, and denied that the military targets activists or protesters. "Where is this information from?" Lt. General Ismail Etman, spokesman for the military said on state TV.

"No soldier would lay a hand on the body of an honorable citizen." He said the military has received a list of detainees provided by activists and is "searching" for them. The military was deployed in Egypt on Jan. 28 to try to restore security as police disappeared from the streets amid the mass protests. Torture by police and other security agents has been widespread in Egypt for years, and grievances linked to such mistreatment helped drive the protests that erupted Jan. 25 and eventually toppled Mubarak.

Criticism of the military’s handling of the transition is on the rise. Youth groups and democracy advocates have said little has been done to usher in reform or bring civilians in the decision-making process. Detainees held in military detention centers said they suffered harsh mistreatment in the days before Mubarak’s fall.

A 29-year-old man said he was detained Feb. 3 and initially held in an annex to the Egyptian Museum overlooking Tahrir Square, the center of the mass protests. "They called me a traitor and a foreign agent and forced me to take off my clothes except my underwear and to lie face down on the floor," the man, whose name was withheld to protect his safety, told Amnesty International.

"Then they beat me with a whip and stepped with boots on my back and on my hands. They kicked me," he said. He said he was then moved to another location, subjected to electric shocks and threatened with rape before being transferred to a military prison northeast of Cairo. There, he was repeatedly beaten before being released after a week, he said.

An 18-year old said he was detained Feb. 3 at Tahrir Square and released with hundreds others on Feb.10. "Then I was taken for interrogation where they insulted me and my family," he told Amnesty. "They said things one should not say. They took off my handcuffs, because they ordered me to take off my clothes, except my underwear, but I remained blindfolded," he said.

He was then tied by the legs repeatedly dunked into a barrel of water. "They told me to confess that I was trained by Israel or by Iran. They also put electric shocks to my body and I fainted," he said.

Mohamed El-Khatib, a 53-year old government employee from the city of Suez, was arrested Feb. 2 for allegedly violating the nightly curfew enforced by the military before Mubarak’s ouster. El-Khatib told The Associated Press he was interrogated at a military detention center about why he participated in the protests, and accused of trying to overthrow the regime.

While blindfolded, he said he was beaten with sticks and whipped and threatened he would never leave the lockup alive. On Feb. 10, he and dozens of other detainees appeared before a military court and were given suspended three-month sentences. "It was as if they were telling us “accept the sentence, so we can let you out,” said El-Khatib, who has since been released. "The honorable people in the military have to get our rights back. I will not be silent. I want my right."

“The Honorable People in the Military” is what El-Khatib said.

Yes, but how can we forget who it was who beat El-Khatib in the first place. It was the Army. That suggests to me that “the honorable people” have a huge culture-shifting educational job to do. And they need to do it with all deliberate speed.

Assad’s Cookie-Cutter

By William Fisher

President Bashar al-Assad of Syria delivered what must be the Mother of all Cookie-Cutter speeches to his parliament yesterday. It’s a pretty good measure of how far out of touch Assad is with his people that he would even consider delivering a smorgasbord of generalities, devoid of any substance, and essentially blaming a conspiracy by Israel and other “outsiders” for all his troubles.

The impact of this pathetic speech was to create even more disappointment, even more anger, because it followed a hurricane of rumors from people close to the president that he was about to lift the decades-old emergency law, in effect since 1963, and begin to build a foundation for reform and constructive dialogue.

None of that even merited a mention. Pro-democracy advocates will not have been impressed with Assad’s sacking of his government – that’s a ploy used by despots going back centuries. It is a breadcrumb that will feed no one.

The dreaded Emergency Law, similar to one in effect for 30 years in Egypt until the fall of Mubarak, gives the government virtually unlimited authority to arrest and detain people without charges or access to lawyers or family members. There are thousands of untried political prisoners in Syrian jails, many of them locked up for years. The Syrian security police are notorious for torturing prisoners and there have been many deaths in detention.

For those who have been courageously demonstrating for democratic change, the takeaway from the speech must have been: “How it is is how it’s going to be. Suck it up and get over it.”

Well, it’s possible that Assad’s brutal treatment of his fellow citizens thus far has intimidated them sufficiently and that we have seen the last of demonstrators – and of target practice by the security services.

But I rather doubt it. So utterly dismissive was the speech from the chinless wonder that those who want democratic change may only become more emboldened. Friday, after prayers, may tell us a lot about the power, or lack thereof, of Assad’s words.

"We cannot say that everyone who went out (in the streets) is a conspirator. Let us be clear about that," he said in a half-hearted sop to those seeking change. But he was equally clear that all of Syria’s troubles were the result of a conspiracy of outside forces “from near and far” designed to foment sectarian violence.

“The first priority was the stability of Syria,” he told Parliament, dusting off a standard line used by dictators who have run out of every resource save bullets. The last time we heard lots of talk of stability, it was coming from our State Department – before the fall of Ben Ali and Mubarak.

And the price of that so-called “stability”?

So far, the street demonstrations in Syria have largely been limited to the South of the country, away from Damascus, the capital. But those peaceful and relatively modest outbursts have cost between 60 and 100 lives. The dead have been shot by the security police.

And here’s our own State Department’s assessment of Syrian “stability”: “During [2009] the government and members of the security forces committed numerous serious human rights abuses, and the human rights situation worsened. The government systematically repressed citizens' abilities to change their government. In a climate of impunity, there were instances of arbitrary or unlawful deprivation of life. Members of the security forces tortured and physically abused prisoners and detainees. Security forces arrested and detained individuals--including activists, organizers, and other regime critics--without due process.

“Lengthy pretrial and incommunicado detention remained a serious problem. During the year the government sentenced to prison several high-profile members of the human rights and civil society communities. The government violated citizens' privacy rights and imposed significant restrictions on freedoms of speech, press, assembly, association, and travel.

“An atmosphere of corruption pervaded the government. Violence and societal discrimination against women continued, as did sexual exploitation, increasingly aimed at Iraqi refugees, including minors. The government discriminated against minorities, particularly Kurds and Ahvazis, and severely restricted workers' rights.”

Are we really supposed to be surprised that the Syrian people would try to rise up from such a living death and create the kind of stability that comes only with leaders who respond to their people?

The so-called “Arab Awakening” may fail in Syria this time. But Tunisia and Egypt have created a tsunami of protest that cannot be held back much longer.

What’s surprising is not that the Syrian people are rising up but how patient they have been – until now.