Egyptians say the mood is different now. Gone is the call of the revolution demanding justice for the brutal torture and killing of a young man and an end to the police abuse his case exemplified. In its place is a weary, national shrug toward brutal attacks, now that they’re directed against the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters. There is little popular demand for justice and little prospect for accountability. If Egypt’s military-backed government can get away with killing more than 1,000 protesters in broad daylight in 2013, what has really changed since the days of Hosni Mubarak?
Since the military overthrow of president Mohamed Morsi, the only democratically elected leader in Egyptian history, security forces have launched a campaign of persecution against the Muslim Brotherhood, with mass killings of protesters, dragnet arrests of its supporters and, most recently, the designation of the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization.
Officials have said they would establish a fact-finding commission to investigate the August 14 massacre of more than 1,000 protesters at the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque and two incidents in July in which security forces killed scores of protesters after Morsi’s overthrow. But no commission has been formed. Human Rights Watch investigations into these killings concluded that government forces used excessive lethal force to disperse the protests, indiscriminately firing at protesters.
Egypt’s track record on accountability for the slayings of protesters since the revolution has been dismal. Even investigations into the deaths of protesters at the hands of Mubarak’s forces, at a time when accountability was a national rallying cry, resulted in only slap-on-the-wrist sentences for a few low-level police officers. There has been no comprehensive public accounting of the killings under the military authorities. With little popular pressure demanding justice for pro-Muslim Brotherhood protesters killed this year, it’s hard to imagine that the government has any serious intention of punishing security officers, much less senior officials.
“Egypt’s test today is… to show that Egyptians stand against the abuse of any of their fellow citizens, even their political opponents.” – Sarah Leah Whitson, Human Rights Watch
In its campaign to bring the Muslim Brotherhood to heel, the authorities have arrested thousands of rank-and-file Brotherhood supporters on a laundry list of charges. In a startling example of selective prosecution, the authorities are charging Morsi and other senior Brotherhood officials with inciting torture and murder at an anti-Morsi protest last year at which 11 protesters died, but they have made no arrests of anyone charged with these killings.
The military authorities have brazenly “disappeared” five key Morsi advisors, detaining them in secret places without charge for more than five months, though the government charged and transferred them to Tora prison earlier this month. Few voices besides Brotherhood partisans are demanding, at minimum, due process for the detainees.
And in November, a court convicted 21 women and girls for participating in pro-Morsi protests, with the women sentenced to 11 years in prison and the girls to detention until they’re 18. An appeals court reduced the sentence, but the chilling message to protesters remains. Challenges by human rights organizations to government abuses are met with scorn.
Brotherhood officials and family members whom Human Rights Watch has met with in Cairo have focused not on politics or strategy but on a desperate appeal for the well-being and survival of their colleagues and loved ones. Relatives lucky enough to have prison visits tell of the appalling conditions the detainees face.
Many senior Brotherhood figures are held in solitary confinement, and report that they are sleeping on the floor in dank cells and are forced to defecate in holes in their cells. They say that food, water and electricity are extremely limited, and they’re unable to get needed medicines. Prosecutors have renewed pretrial detentions en masse, with no real opportunity to challenge the detentions.
In this context, it’s startling to hear Secretary of State John F. Kerry lauding Egypt’s new rulers for “restoring democracy” while charging the Brotherhood with “stealing the revolution.” Such shameless cajoling does nothing to rein in the military’s heavy-handed abuses, much less move Egypt in a democratic direction. As President Obama has said, it’s hard to have a political dialogue when the opposition is in jail.
A Palestinian friend described the situation in Egypt today as proof that Egyptians “aren’t opposed to oppression; they’re OK with it as long as they’re not the ones being oppressed.” Egypt’s test today is to prove him wrong, and show that Egyptians stand against the abuse of any of their fellow citizens, even their political opponents.
A version of this post was originally published by the Los Angeles Times.
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Sarah Leah Whitson is the Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.