Egyptian authorities detain thousands amid crackdown on dissent

n13-iconThe Washington Post reports: At his office in downtown Cairo, defense lawyer Mahmoud Belal chain-smokes Marlboro Reds and gulps cups of bitter Turkish coffee — fuel to help him juggle constant phone calls and pleas for help amid a vast government crackdown on dissent.

“We try to be everywhere all of the time: courts, police stations, hospitals, prisons, morgues,” said Belal, who spent years defending political prisoners under former strongman Hosni Mubarak and later under Islamist President Mohamed Morsi. “But there was never this kind of momentum under Mubarak. They are just putting people in jail — and it’s happening all at once.”

The growing number of people held by Egyptian authorities as part of a frenzied campaign to crush opposition to the military-backed government has squeezed the country’s already broken criminal justice system, leading to widespread legal and human rights abuses by security forces, prosecutors and prison guards, Belal and other rights lawyers here say.

Thousands of Egyptians have been swept up in a wave of arrests since the military overthrew Morsi in a popular coup last summer, including not only the ousted leader’s supporters but also leftist activists, journalists and ordinary citizens caught in the chaos. Security forces have arrested people for offenses such as photographing demonstrations and have accused suspected Islamist militants and demonstrators alike of terrorism. [Continue reading...]

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Al Jazeera trial: prosecution presents contents of journalists’ hotel rooms

The Guardian reports: The second day of the trial of three al-Jazeera journalists in Egypt descended into farce on Wednesday when prosecutors presented the entire contents of their raided hotel rooms as evidence, and another co-defendant said he did not understand what the trial was about.

Australian ex-BBC correspondent Peter Greste, Canadian-Egyptian ex-CNN journalist Mohamed Fahmy, and local producer Baher Mohamed are among 20 people on trial in Egypt on charges of spreading misinformation and aiding terrorists. The case has sparked international outcry, and been portrayed worldwide as a serious attack on Egyptian press freedom.

But the case took a tragicomic turn when prosecutors presented box after box of everyday items and broadcast equipment as evidence of the defendants’ alleged terrorism – many as innocuous as electric cables, a computer keyboard, and a bumbag belonging to Peter Greste.

At one point judge Mohamed Nagy lost count of the number of cameras he had been shown, and struggled to open two of the suitcases in which the evidence was contained. Throughout the proceedings, two birds trapped inside the courtroom flew overhead. [Continue reading...]

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Court bans activities of Hamas in Egypt

Reuters reports: An Egyptian court on Tuesday banned all Hamas activities in Egypt in another sign that the military-backed government aims to squeeze the Palestinian Islamist group that rules the neighboring Gaza Strip.

Hamas is an offshoot of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, which the authorities have declared a terrorist group and which they have repressed systematically since the army ousted one of its leaders, Mohamed Mursi, from the presidency in July.

“The court has ordered the banning of Hamas’s work and activities in Egypt,” the judge, who asked not to be named, told Reuters.

During his year in power, Mursi gave red-carpet treatment to Hamas, angering many secular and liberal Egyptians who saw this as part of a creeping Islamist takeover following the 2011 uprising that toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

The military-buttressed authorities now classify Hamas as a significant security risk, accusing it of supporting an Islamist insurgency that has spread quickly since Mursi’s fall, allegations the Palestinian group denies. [Continue reading...]

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Egypt’s ‘AIDS curing device’ may be a fake bomb detector

a13-iconMashable: On Saturday, the Egyptian army unveiled a “miraculous” device it claims will detect and cure AIDS and Hepatitis. But the device, named C-Fast, looks eerily similar to a fake bomb detector sold by a British company to Iraq in the late 2000s.

That device, codenamed ADE 651, was later found to be a scam. One that reportedly cost the Iraqi government as much as $85 million dollars, and perhaps hundreds of lives. Its creator, James McCormick, was indicted and later sentenced to 10 years in prison.

The possible link between the C-Fast and the fake bomb detector, named ADE 651, was first spotted by the Libyan Youth Movement, a citizen organization born after the Egyptian revolution of 2011. The group posted a picture of the two devices on Twitter.

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Maidan, Ukraine … Tahrir, Egypt … the square symbolises failure, not hope

o13-iconSimon Jenkins writes: The experience was eerie. I was watching a documentary, The Square, on Netflix about the 2011 Tahrir Square occupation when the lead character, Ahmed, let out a cry of delight, “The revolution has been won.” At that very moment my radio blurted out a voice live from a different square, Kiev’s Maidan. “The revolution has been won,” it repeated.

Squares are famously potent political theatres. This year is a second showing for Ukraine’s revolution, and a third for Egypt’s. Western TV viewers have cheered them all on. We thrill to see young people hurling rocks at power. Fire, smoke, bloodstained flags, broken heads, water, gas and sinister paramilitaries are Les Misérables for slow learners. We can sit with a front seat in the auditorium of history. It beats polling booths any day.

Tahrir and Maidan squares thus join Istanbul’s Taksim, Tehran’s Azadi, Beijing’s Tiananmen, Prague’s Wenceslaus, Athens’s Syntagma, London’s Trafalgar and a dozen other urban spaces the world over as icons of modern revolutionary politics. Their furniture is the barricade, their tipple the Molotov cocktail, their tonic the tear gas canister. They gather people in their thousands to sacred forums and invite the world to witness the latest trial of strength with a supposedly oppressive regime. Sometimes they even win.

If I were a dictator I would build shopping malls over these places right away, as Turkey’s Recep Erdoğan tried to do last year in Taksim’s Gezi Park. At the very least, I would learn the message of Tiananmen: that a crowd once formed in a square is fiendishly hard to remove, and creates worse publicity worldwide than a dozen provincial massacres.

Vladimir Putin reportedly damned Ukraine’s Viktor Yanukovych for failing immediately to remove crowds from Maidan, at whatever cost in brutality. It is hard to imagine Putin allowing an occupation of Red Square. [Continue reading...]

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Egypt government resigns, paving way for Sisi to seek presidency

n13-iconReuters reports: Egypt’s government resigned on Monday, paving the way for army chief Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to declare his candidacy for president of a strategic U.S. ally gripped by political strife.

After the July overthrow of elected Islamist President Mohamed Mursi and subsequent crackdown on Islamists and liberals with hundreds killed and thousands jailed, critics say Cairo’s military-backed authorities are turning the clock back to the era of autocrat Hosni Mubarak era, when the political elite ruled with an iron fist in alliance with top businessmen.

“(The outgoing government) made every effort to get Egypt out of the narrow tunnel in terms of security, economic pressures and political confusion,” Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi said in a live nationwide speech.

Beblawi, who was tasked by interim President Adly Mansour with running the government’s affairs until the election, did not give a clear reason for the decision.

But it effectively opened the way for Sisi to run for president since he would first have to leave his post as defense minister in any case. “This (government resignation) was done as a step that was needed ahead of Sisi’s announcement that he will run for president,” an Egyptian official said. [Continue reading...]

Meanwhile, the Associated Press reports: An Egyptian prosecutor on Sunday accused the ousted Islamist president of passing state secrets to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, the first such explicit detail in an ongoing espionage trial.

If convicted, Mohammed Morsi could face capital punishment. He already stands accused of a string of other charges, some of which also carry the death penalty, levelled as part of a crackdown on his Muslim Brotherhood group after the military deposed him last summer.

At Sunday’s hearing, part of which was aired on state television, the prosecution accused Morsi and 35 other Brotherhood members of conspiring to destabilize the country and cooperating with foreign militant groups — including Palestinian Hamas and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

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How did 37 prisoners come to die at Cairo prison Abu Zaabal?

f13-iconThe Observer reports: Some time after midday on Sunday 18 August 2013, a young Egyptian film-maker called Mohamed el-Deeb made his last will and testament. It was an informal process. Deeb had no paper on which to sign his name and there was no lawyer present. He simply turned to the man handcuffed next to him and outlined which debts to settle if he should die, and what to say to his mother about the circumstances of his death.

Deeb had good reason to fear for his life. He was among 45 prisoners squashed into the back of a tiny, sweltering police truck parked in the forecourt of Abu Zaabal prison, just north-east of Cairo. They had been in the truck for more than six hours. The temperature outside was over 31C, and inside would have been far hotter. There was no space to stand and the prisoners had had almost nothing to drink. Some had wrung out their sweat-drenched shirts and drunk the drops of moisture. Many were now unconscious.

Most of the men inside that van were supporters of Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first elected president. Squashed against Deeb was Mohamed Abdelmahboud, a 43-year-old seed merchant and a member of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood.

Following four days of mass protests against his year-long rule, the army had overthrown Morsi and the Brotherhood in early July. In response, tens of thousands of people camped outside the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque in east Cairo to call for the president’s reinstatement. Within a week, the space outside Rabaa turned from an empty crossroads to a sprawling tent city that housed both a market and a makeshift field hospital. At Rabaa’s centre was a stage where preachers led prayers and firebrands spouted sectarian rhetoric. At its edges were a Dad’s Army of badly equipped guards, dressed in crash helmets and tae kwon do vests, standing before a series of walls built of stones ripped from pavements. From behind these barricades, two or three times a day, protest marches would snake into nearby neighbourhoods, blocking major thoroughfares and paralysing much of the city. Clashes between armed police and protesters claimed more than 170 lives. [Continue reading...]

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Egypt’s new dictator was made in the USA

f13-iconGregg Carlstrom reports: A confident-looking Abdel Fattah el-Sisi strides across the tarmac at Almaza Air Base, dressed in a blue blazer and his trademark sunglasses. He is not yet Egypt’s head of state, but certainly looks like one: Nabil Fahmy, the foreign minister, trails a few steps behind, half-obscured by the phalanx of military officers around Sisi. The delegation is en route to Russia to discuss a multi-billion dollar arms deal.

The next day in Moscow, a smiling Sisi shakes hands with Vladimir Putin. The Russian president wishes him well. “I know you have decided to run for president. This is a very responsible decision, to take upon yourself responsibility for the fate of the Egyptian people,” he says.

It is Sisi’s first foreign trip since he overthrew President Mohamed Morsi last summer, and it ticks all the boxes: The army chief doffing his uniform, acting like a statesman, shoring up relations with a popular ally.

Except, despite Putin’s good wishes, Sisi hasn’t actually announced a presidential bid yet. For the second time this month, a foreign dignitary got ahead of the army chief. Last week it was Ahmed El-Garallah, the editor of Al-Seyassah, a Kuwaiti newspaper of dubious reliability, who interviewed Sisi at the Defense Ministry and reported that he would run for president, only to have the army deny the story hours later. [Continue reading...]

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Egypt: A return to the 1990s?

Nadine Marroushi and Passant Rabie report: Abandoned houses destroyed by shellfire, a mosque turned to rubble, and burned huts lay among sand dunes, citrus farms and olive groves, in the villages of Mehdeyya and Muqataa, a few kilometers from the borders of Gaza and Israel in the north of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.

They are the hometowns of some of the militants associated with Ansar Beit al-Maqdes, the jihadi group which has emerged as Egypt’s biggest terrorist threat in a decade, after its members claimed responsibility for bombing a tourist bus in the Sinai town of Taba, killing three South Korean tourists and the Egyptian bus driver, as well as shooting down a military helicopter, assassinating a senior policeman in broad daylight, and exploding a bomb outside Cairo’s police headquarters.

The impoverished villages and mountains of North Sinai have become the new base for an Islamist insurgency that echoes the one Egypt’s security forces fought and crushed in the 1980s and 1990s.

Jama’a al-Islamiya and Islamic Jihad were the two most prominent groups, whose string of attacks included the assassination of former president Anwar al-Sadat in 1981, an attempted assassination of the minister of interior in 1993, and of former President Hosni Mubarak in 1995, as well as repeated attacks on tourists and Christians. These culminated in the 1997 Luxor massacre when gunmen opened fire and killed 58 tourists and four Egyptians.

The attack was the last of a wave of terrorism that between 1992 and 1998 killed close to a 1,000 people. A ceasefire was announced in early 1998, with rumors of internal rifts within Islamic Jihad following the Luxor attack, and a heavy crackdown on Jama’a al-Islamiya’s members.

A decade and a half on, elusive groups based in Sinai are waging war against Egypt’s military-led government in response to the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood-led government in July and a subsequent crackdown on the movement. Attacks have been directed at vital economic targets such as the tourist industry and the Suez Canal, security buildings, and military and police personnel, including high-ranking officials from the Ministry of Interior — in early September the minister himself, Mohamed Ibrahim, survived an assassination attempt. [Continue reading...]

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Egypt’s crackdown on journalism

a13-iconThe New York Times reports: The three men, wearing white prison scrubs in metal cages reserved for criminal suspects, listened to the list of explosive charges accusing them of aiding a plot to undermine Egypt’s national security.

They had links to terrorists, the prosecutors contended, and before their court appearance on Thursday, the men were detained for weeks among prisoners whom the government considers its most dangerous opponents. The charges could bring up to 15 years in prison.

But the three suspects are all seasoned journalists. Their crime was filing news reports for their employer, Al Jazeera English, before state security officers came to the hotel suite they used as a makeshift studio in December, ultimately rounding them up and throwing them in jail.

The charges against the men, branded the “the Marriott cell” by government-friendly news outlets, are the most serious against journalists here in recent memory, rights groups say, part of a widening crackdown by Egypt’s military-backed government that has ensnared scores of reporters, as well as filmmakers, bloggers and academics.

What began months ago with mass arrests and repression of the government’s opponents in the Muslim Brotherhood has steadily broadened into a campaign against perceived critics of all stripes. In all, thousands of people — mostly Islamists, but also some of the best-known activists from the uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak — have been put in jail, many of them still awaiting trial. [Continue reading...]

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Sisi’s turn

f13-iconHazem Kandil writes: There is no getting around it. What Egypt has become three years after its once inspiring revolt is a police state more vigorous than anything we have seen since Nasser. As in the dark years of the 1960s, the enemy is everywhere, and any effort to expose and eradicate him is given popular assent. Since Egypt’s national security, its very existence as a sovereign state, is said to be at stake, those who refuse to toe the line must be ostracised, and those who persist punished as traitors. The talk of human rights that sustained the original uprising is dismissed as a distraction, the preoccupation of self-righteous amateurs, while seasoned servants of the old regime are rehabilitated. Most disheartening of all, the sycophants who rushed for cover three years ago are re-emerging to offer their services to the new masters. Egypt’s briefly empowered citizens have come to see that their intervention almost paved the way for religious fascism, and now that disaster has been averted, they prefer to keep their hands off the political controls. Mubarak warned that the alternatives to his rule were Islamism or chaos. Both were tried and neither was liked. People wanted bread, dignity and freedom, so they shunned the daydreamers of 2011 and pinned their hopes on a new Nasser on the Nile. If only Abdel Fattah al-Sisi could be installed as president, all their problems would be over. Crowning a field marshal has become the battle the citizenry is determined to win.

How did it come to this? As the Brothers tell it, their embattled president spearheaded a revolutionary assault which provoked a counter-revolution. This is pure fiction. It is certainly true that the Brothers have been outmanoeuvred by an alliance of old regime loyalists and secular activists. But it was the Brothers’ complacency that alienated their revolutionary allies and, more important, the people. The 2011 uprising left the security apparatus intact, and the military regained the autonomy they had lost under Mubarak. But the question of who would hold political office was open to negotiation, and the generals didn’t mind trying out the power-hungry Islamists. They were more organised than the activists who sparked the revolt, and less embittered than the remnants of the old regime. They didn’t pose a threat to military privileges and deferred amiably to the security forces who set out to crush the revolt. And they had no intention of dismantling the infrastructure of dictatorship and submitting themselves to the volatile moods of a democratic process; they just wanted to take Mubarak’s place at the top. Morsi was no more Egypt’s Allende than Sisi was its Pinochet.

On 1 February 2011, while the protesters were still entrenched in Tahrir Square, Morsi and the future head of the Brothers’ Freedom and Justice Party, Saad al-Katatni, entered into secret negotiations with the intelligence chief Omar Suleiman for a larger share of power in return for stopping the revolt. Once Mubarak was ousted, the Islamists adopted the military-security programme: elections first, constitution and reform later. Those who argued that new democracies need to establish some basic guidelines before rushing to the ballot box were dismissed. The idea that the security agencies should be overhauled before any election took place was seen as nothing more than a delaying tactic. Throughout the transitional period, the Brothers blamed the protesters for the violence directed at them by the state – they were staging illegal protests, after all – and repeatedly alleged that the activists were pawns of foreign intelligence services. In parliament, they took every opportunity to praise Egypt’s gallant law enforcers and blocked every attempt to hold them accountable. As soon as Morsi was sworn in, he congratulated the police for reforming themselves, audaciously referring to them as esteemed partners in the 2011 uprising. Even more significant was the Brothers’ decision to drop a report detailing police crimes – among them the shooting of demonstrators – even though its contents had been leaked to several newspapers (including Al-Shorouk and the Guardian) and Morsi’s handpicked prosecutor had promised arrests. Needless to say, security abuses surged during Morsi’s short tenure, and official coercion was reinforced by the Brothers’ own militias. [Continue reading...]

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Egypt’s security forces once again using virginity tests on female detainees

n13-iconSheera Frenkel reports: Jehad Safwat pulls her headscarf tight and presses her hands deep into her belly when she talks about the virginity tests she underwent last month in Egyptian detention.

The 21-year-old medical student was arrested at a Dec. 28 rally organized by Muslim Brotherhood supporters at Cairo University. For nearly two weeks she was held in detention, mostly at Cairo’s Azkabia police station, where she says she was forced to submit to virginity and pregnancy tests that police conducted at a medical facility nearby. When she was finally released, police filed no formal charges against her — and handed her the bill for her “treatments.” Safwat was one of four women who spoke with BuzzFeed about undergoing forced virginity and pregnancy tests at the hands of the Egyptian security services.

The Egyptian army, which ousted the Muslim Brotherhood-led government last year and has effectively ruled the country since, promised to ban the tests after it emerged that more than a dozen women arrested during the 2011 protests in Tahrir Square had been forced to submit to them. It hasn’t, and the doctors arrested for performing the tests were acquitted when they brought to trial a year later.

Now, the tests are back. After more than a year in which human rights activists say that police refrained from carrying out virginity tests, or employing the types of harsh interrogation methods regularly associated with the ousted regime of Hosni Mubarak, reports have resurfaced of police brutality against both men and women. It’s the final sign, activists say, that the police state is fully back. [Continue reading...]

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Egypt: Reprisals for revolutionaries

o13-iconDavid Wolman writes: During his first two weeks in Cairo’s notorious Tora Prison, Ahmed Maher was able to smuggle out a few letters that he had scribbled on toilet paper. Maher is the soft-spoken 33-year-old civil engineer who co-founded the April 6 Youth Movement and was a crucial behind-the-scenes operator during the 2011 protests that toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak three years ago today. Maher has now been in prison for 72 days. His family is having difficulty getting information about his wellbeing, although he has occasionally dictated letters to visitors, including this one, published last week by the Washington Post, and this one, sent to me yesterday.

In one of his earlier messages, Maher wrote of conditions in the jail, joking that his food, at least, would stay well-preserved. “I don’t think there is a refrigerator anywhere colder than this cell.” For the most part, however, his letters have been scathing indictments of Egypt’s military and warned of catastrophic social unrest if the “police state” continues its campaign to dismantle the groups that came together for the 2011 Revolution.

That dismantling has gone largely unnoticed by the West. Outside of Egypt, news about the country suggests a binary struggle. On one side: the Muslim Brotherhood, angered over the ouster of President Mohammad Morsi and pushing back against oppression, real or perceived. On the other side: The military-led government of Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who appears poised to run for president. [Continue reading...]

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Three years after Mubarak stepped down, Tahrir Square is ringed by steel barriers

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Video: If economic problems aren’t fixed, Egyptians might turn against the security state

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Egypt’s military coup empowers jihadists who reject democracy

n13-iconThe New York Times reports: The military overthrow of a freely elected Islamist fulfilled the predictions of jihadist ideologies that power could never be won through democracy, and they have pounced on the opportunity to proclaim their vindication.

International terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, began calling for Muslims inside and outside of Egypt to take up arms against the government. Now a growing number of experienced Egyptian jihadists are heeding that call, often under the banner of Sinai-based militant groups such as Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, according to United States and Egyptian officials involved in counterterrorism. At least two Egyptians who returned from fighting in Syria have already killed themselves as suicide bombers, according to biographies released by the group.

Egyptian military officials say they have also captured Palestinians, Syrians and other foreigners among the terrorists in Sinai. But an American counterterrorism official said Washington believed Ansar Beit al-Maqdis “is largely Egyptian, including some who fought in other conflict zones before returning home,” along with “a relatively small contingent of battle-hardened foreigners.”

The jihadist homecoming appears to have provided the resources and expertise behind a quickening series of attacks that have far exceeded the abilities previously displayed in Egypt. Ansar Beit al-Maqdis has shown it can build and remotely detonate large bombs in strategic locations, gather intelligence about the precise timing of movements by their targets, record their own attacks and manage the complicated maintenance of an advanced portable surface-to-air missile — all suggesting combat experience.

“The number of attacks has gone up certainly over the past six weeks,” John O. Brennan, the director of the C.I.A., told a House hearing this week. “And some senior-level Egyptian officials have been killed at the hands of these terrorists.”

Egyptian military officials say they are determined to defeat this new wave of terrorists just as they defeated the insurgency that flared in the 1990s.

Back then, militants who insisted on armed struggle — including Ayman al-Zawahri, the Egyptian-born Al Qaeda leader — eventually gave up on the utility of armed struggle at home, refocusing on attacking Egypt’s Western sponsors.

But the ouster of Mr. Morsi appears to have changed that calculus.

“Zawahri and others have been saying from the beginning that they believed the military would come back, that the military and the West are not going to allow an Islamist government to stay in power,” said Aaron Zelin, a researcher at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who tracks jihadist messages.

The Brotherhood, which has publicly denounced violence for decades, once helped combat militancy by channeling Islamist opposition into the political process. But the new government has now outlawed the Brotherhood. [Continue reading...]

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