Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Tahrir Square: One Year Later

Tahrir Square, January 25, 2012

As an International Witness to the first and third round of the Egyptian Parliamentary elections I had an opportunity to visit Tahrir Square in later November 2o11 and again in early January 2012.

Walking into Tahrir Square on November 25, 2011

Walking amongst the protesters and meeting with them in the tents at the heart of the square to listen to their desires for the future of Egypt. Seeing their defiance in the face of the heavy military and police presence and the real danger they faced in clashes that ended with unarmed demonstrators shot to death one could admire their courage.

Despite all of this, and at the same time because of the continuing systematic denial of human rights, today January 25, 2012 tens of thousands of Egyptians took to Tahrir Square to protest continued military rule chanting slogans among them: "Egypt is a state not a barracks"; "Down with military rule!"; "Our demands are the same freedom and justice!;" and "Civilian, civilian we don't want it militaristic!"

Massive march to Tahrir, one of the largest in Egypt's history on January 25, 2012

Since the departure of Mubarak one year ago the human rights situation under the military has deteriorated. Daniel Williams from Human Rights Watch in an oped published today offers an overview of human rights in Egypt over the past year:
...Mubarak's repressive legacy has been preserved and even strengthened. SCAF rules in his place and has indicated it should remain a power behind the scenes, as it has for the 60 years since the overthrow of the country's monarchy.

Egyptians still live under the emergency law –in place since the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981 – that permits bans on public assembly, indefinite detention without charge, prosecution in special courts that allow no appeal process and that are notorious for reliance on confessions obtained under torture. On Tuesday, SCAF's chieftain, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, partially lifted the 30-year state of emergency but said Egypt would continue to apply the emergency law to cases of "thuggery." Tantawi's gesture is far from sufficient. In the last year, military tribunals have convicted hundreds of peaceful protesters on charges of thuggery.

During almost a year in power, SCAF has liberally referred civilians to military courts, another practice of the Mubarak years, though under him it was reserved for so-called exceptional cases. Sometimes the magistrates have announced a verdict before a trial began.

The military has arbitrarily arrested and convicted peaceful protesters, some of whom remain imprisoned. Measures that date from Britain's early 20th century domination of Egypt ban assemblies of more than five people "that threaten the public peace."

Although by international standards, lethal force should be used only when strictly necessary to protect life, under current Egyptian law, police – who are effectively under SCAF control –possess wide scope for shooting at demonstrators. The minister of interior has broad discretion to decide on use of weapons and what warnings need be given demonstrators before firing on them. On Jan. 6, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, an independent human rights organization, denounced a statement by the interior minister that police will get bonuses for shooting "thugs," government shorthand for demonstrators.

Police regulations are bad enough, but the actions of security forces – both police and military – have been abominable. In October, soldiers ran over demonstrators with armored cars and shot them, killing 27 marchers at a Christian rally held to protest the burning of a church. In November, at least 40 demonstrators were killed by anti-riot forces during unrest in and around Tahrir Square, the epicenter of protest. Police routinely beat demonstrators, women included. Human Rights Watch has documented torture and abuse of detainees by soldiers. Military personnel carried out abusive "virginity tests" on women in detention. Servile state media demonize opposition groups and non-governmental organizations as subversive tools of dark foreign forces.

Laws endure that make citizens vulnerable to prosecution for "insulting" speech or words "harmful" to morals or tantamount to changing the existing political order. In March, SCAF added a new wrinkle to restrictions on speech and assembly by criminalizing strikes and demonstrations "that impede public works." In April, a military court sentenced young blogger Maikel Nabil Sanad to three years in prison for "insulting the military establishment" when he criticized army rule on his blog and Facebook page. SCAF said last weekend that Nabil would be pardoned and released along with more than 1,900 other prisoners convicted in military trials. It was a gesture in advance of the Jan. 25 holiday; Nabil shouldn't have been arrested and convicted in the first place.
Harsh repression and raids on human rights organizations in Egypt continue but despite this Egyptians are unafraid. All eyes on Egypt and in solidarity with Egyptian democrats seeking to restore civilian rule after 60 years of military rule.

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