It began like a standard Cairo protest. Around a hundred activists assembled Tuesday across the street from Egypt’s Shura Council, the higher of two legislative bodies, denouncing the inclusion of military trials for civilians in the proposed constitution. Police stood in front of the iron gate of the Council, then a fire truck joined them. “The Interior Ministry are thugs!” the activists chanted. Within half an hour, after making an announcement on a bullhorn, the police turned a water cannon on the crowd. More police rushed in, arresting at least 30 people. The rest of the protesters ran.
“They put their hands around my neck and started to choke me,” said Nazly Hussein, a member of the No To Military Trials For Civilians campaign, who was among those detained at the protest. “They tried to pull my scarf until I almost fell, at which point they started pulling my clothes off and harassing me.”
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Had it taken place a week earlier, this small, peaceful demonstration by non-Islamist activists might have been all but ignored by the police. On Sunday, Egypt’s interim President Adly Mansour approved a new law criminalizing protests that take place without government permission. The government argues the new law will help restore security and enable the economy to recover, reasoning that will appeal to portions of public exhausted after nearly three years of upheaval. By implementing the new law swiftly the authorities now risk a politically costly battle with activists over the right to protest. Tuesday’s crackdown drew criticism from liberal political parties aligned with the government, and the US State Department expressed concern over the protest law, saying it “does not meet international standards and will not move Egypt’s democratic transition forward.”
It is a battle that has already caused fissures in the current military-led governing coalition. Police brought the detained protesters inside the grounds of the Shura Council and, once inside, members of the panel currently drafting the new constitution came down the stairs. “[The panel members] were embarrassed. They couldn’t look us in the eye. They kept apologizing,” Hussein said in a phone interview early Wednesday, shortly after being released from detention. Within hours, at least 10 members of the 50-member constitution-drafting committee announced they would refuse to participate in the panel until all of the reported 52 people detained in three separate incidents on Tuesday were released.
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Later, after being transported to a police station on the outskirts of Cairo, police told the women protesters they could go free, but they refused to leave while the men in the group were still being detained. “They said, you’re either going to leave right now, or you’ll be forcibly put in the van. In less than 30 seconds they were beating us all up,” said Hussein. “They pulled one girl down the stairs by her hair.”
After cramming the women into the back of a van, police released the women on the side of the road, in the desert south of Cairo. Hussein said it was only because of the presence of high-profile activists among the detainees that any notice was given to their treatment and that any restraint at all was shown by police. “This is going to continue for less high-profile people, and they’re going to be very badly beaten up. They’re going to be tortured.”
Prosecutors ordered that 24 of the protesters be detained for another four days, according to the Ahram Online news site. Officials at the Ministry of Interior could not be immediately reached for comment.
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After the military removed Muslim Brotherhood-backed president Mohammed Morsi from power in July, the new government launched a sweeping crackdown on Islamists, using deadly force at demonstrations. More than 1,000 people have died during the clampdown. After months of arrests and deadly protest incidents, the Muslim Brotherhood has been largely driven underground. A statement issued from the group’s London office said the Brotherhood “is deeply disturbed by the continuation of brutal violence against peaceful protesters by the Military Junta. Today’s protests against military trials for civilians were dispersed by use of water cannons, tear gas and heavy handed arrests.”
Yet even as Egypt’s once-reviled security forces enjoyed significant public support in their campaign against the Islamists, much of Egypt’s non-Islamist opposition remained relatively inactive. But the aggressive clearing of three separate protests in downtown Cairo on Tuesday, and the arrests of some of the prominent activists such as Mona Seif, the founder of the No To Military Trials campaign and Ahmed Harara, who lost both eyes in protests against Hosni Mubarak and military rule could once again mobilize Egypt’s revolutionaries.
“It’s an unforced error in the sense that you are potentially energizing a segment of the opposition that has been not quiescent, but subdued because they find no way to express themselves,” says Michael Hanna, a political analyst with the Century Foundation in New York City. “It’s reflective of a revitalized security services that doesn’t think in nuance, frankly. It’s out to squelch dissent and protest.”
Hanna said there was no chance of non-Islamist activists re-forming the short-lived coalition with Islamists that coalesced during the uprising against Mubarak, but antagonizing them could set up a “two-front fight” with the government. “[The non-Islamist revolutionary camp] has a disproportionate sway because of who they are, because of their links to the outside world, because of their attractiveness to the outside world, and because they do have some sympathy on the part of some people in the present governing set-up.”
The new protest law requires protest organizers to notify the Ministry of Interior in advance of any gathering of 10 or more people. Protesters found in violation of this requirement face fines of up to $4,300. Other sections of the law stipulate jail terms ranging up to five years (for “violations of general security, public order”) or seven years for carrying weapons at a protest. The law also prohibits sit-ins like the Tahrir Square occupation that culminated in Mubarak’s ouster. Human Rights Watch said the law “would effectively give the police carte blanche to ban protest in Egypt.”
Minutes after the dispersal of the Shura Council protest on Tuesday, activists regrouped at the entrance to the Qasr Al-Aini Bridge, spanning the Nile. There, Tarek Shalaby, a web designer, socialist activist and one of the familiar faces of the 2011 uprising stood, squinting as tear gas drifted past. Several of his friends had just been arrested. “If we stick to it and we get into the thousands it will be too big of a task [to disperse]. It’s going to take longer. It’s going to get a lot of exposure.”
“This is their version of escalation,” Shalaby said of the police measures. “They’re betting on the fact that we’ll give up and go home.”