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In Egypt, police and supporters of the ruling party attacked scores of pro-reform demonstrators and journalists yesterday, Human Rights Watch said today. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak must appoint an independent judicial panel to conduct a thorough investigation into these attacks.

Yesterday in Cairo, plainclothes security agents beat demonstrators, and riot police allowed—and sometimes encouraged—mobs of Mubarak supporters to beat and sexually assault protestors and journalists.

“The police and ruling-party assaults on pro-reform advocates yesterday shows just how hollow the Mubarak government’s rhetoric of reform really is,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director of Human Rights Watch. “At a minimum, the president should appoint people with unquestioned integrity to investigate this state-sanctioned brutality.

In particular, the panel should examine the role that Interior Minister Habib al-`Adli played in this episode, Human Rights Watch said.

The attacks took place in at least two locations in Cairo—near the Sa`d Zaghlul shrine and the Press Syndicate headquarters—as Egyptians voted on a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow challengers to run in the presidential election scheduled for September. The umbrella opposition group Kifaya (“Enough” in Arabic) and other groups critical of the government called for voters to boycott the referendum because the amendment in effect would allow the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) to decide who can be a presidential candidate.

A witness to the Sa`d Zaghlul confrontation told Human Rights Watch that there were two separate groups totaling about 50 Kifaya demonstrators on the sidewalk, with a cordon of about a hundred riot police. On the street facing them was a larger group wearing NDP pins:

At first the NDP crowd was just content to shout and threaten the Kifaya people that if they came out of the cordon they were in for a beating. The Kifaya group stood their ground, so the thugs changed tactics. The police would let a bunch of them cross into the Kifaya group, where they would single out one person to pull out to their side, all the while beating that person. They’d repeat that. It was almost choreographed, someone would say “attack” and then say “stop.” It was brutal but it was not chaotic.

Human Rights Watch spoke with an Egyptian journalist who said she was beaten in the Sa`d Zaghlul area:

It was around noon. NDP gangs were cornering Kifaya people. Two big men were pushing a young woman along the sidewalk, one under each arm. As they passed she reached out and grabbed my hand. I held her hand. Others came and pushed us against a tree, along with six other Kifaya people they had swept up. I think they were plainclothes security—they had batons, they were better dressed than the NDP mob. We were four men and four women, I was in the outer ring. I told them I was a journalist, and one hit me. They reached in and pulled my hair, and one reached into my shirt. They groped the other women as well, touching us all over. You never knew where a hand would grab or pinch you, or whose hand it was. They hit the men with us. This went on for about half an hour. I was about to faint. Finally a cameraman I know came by, and he told them I had a heart condition and that if they didn’t let me go they might have a dead body on their hands. That was not true, but it worked, they let me go.

Another journalist who witnessed the Sa`d Zaghlul confrontations told Human Rights Watch that she saw people beating up a Kifaya demonstrator. She approached a uniformed policeman who was standing by and urged him to intervene. She said he replied that “his [Kifaya] colleagues will help him” and made no move to help the victim. At another point, she said, she overheard a policeman telling a group of young men with Mubarak posters, “There are lots of women. Go check them out.”

After about half an hour, one NDP supporter with a loudspeaker said they would march to the Press Syndicate, where another Kifaya demonstration was taking place. “Along Nubar Street,” an eyewitness said,

there was a pharmacy where maybe six Kifaya people were hiding. I don’t know how this mob knew which building it was, but they went right to it. “Come out, you cowards, you agents of America,” they shouted. After about 10 minutes some riot police came but they surrounded the mob and the shop together—they didn’t put themselves in between. At first the mob didn’t go in, but then they did and pulled two people out and beat them badly.

The witness said that this episode lasted perhaps an hour before the gang moved on to the Press Syndicate, with the entourage of riot police. “The mob was now maybe a hundred people, and maybe 40 police.”

The street in front of the steps leading up to the Press Syndicate had been cordoned off by riot police and metal barriers. The steps were crowded with Kifaya demonstrators. When the crowd of NDP supporters arrived, they stood on the other side of the cordon and the two sides traded insults. After about ten minutes, the eyewitness said, the man with the loudspeaker shouted “yalla”—let’s go—and the police moved aside to allow the attackers through the cordon to assault the Kifaya demonstrators.

One of the reporters at the Press Syndicate headquarters told Human Rights Watch what happened to her there:

It was about 2 or 2:30 p.m. I was at the top of the steps of the syndicate building, to the left of the entrance. The steps were full of Kifaya people and I was on the edge of the crowd. There was a cordon of security and riot police on the street. I saw a group of NDP people come down the streets—they had Mubarak posters—and there were at least 20 riot police walking with them, looking like they were protecting them. The police at the bottom of the steps opened the cordon to let the NDP gang through to the demonstrators. The next thing I knew a gang of about 20 or 30 NDP guys came at us from the left. One of them groped and manhandled me. I tried to push him away and he shouted, “I have a lady, let her through.” This seemed to be a signal for others to attack me. They pulled my hair and ripped my shirt, touching me all over. All over. I started screaming in English. “Hey, she’s screaming in English,” they shouted. They grabbed the strap on my bag and pulled me to the ground. Then the kicking started, and more groping. They were laughing and cheering. I crawled closer to the stairs. Another NDP guy came. He pulled me up and told them to calm down. I ran down the stairs. The police at the bottom let me through to get away.

Another reporter told Human Rights Watch that she approached the commanding officer, whom she identified as the head of Cairo security, and asked why the police stood by. He replied that by law the police were not allowed to enter Press Syndicate premises unless invited by the head of the syndicate and with authorization from the interior ministry.

Protests and clashes reportedly occurred in the port city of Isma`iliyya as well, while in Alexandria and other places security forces prevented demonstrators from assembling. The day also saw additional arrests of Muslim Brotherhood members in various parts of the country. More than a thousand members of the Muslim Brotherhood, a group that is tolerated but officially banned and is widely considered the largest opposition force in the country, have been arrested in raids over the last several weeks. About a hundred reportedly remain in detention.

Human Rights Watch expressed dismay at the response of U.S. officials to the state-sponsored violence in Cairo. When Agence-France Presse asked Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice about it, she replied that she had “not seen the reports you are talking about.”
“We have said to the Egyptians that this process needs to be as open and as forward-leaning as possible, because political reform is a necessity for Egypt,” Rice said. “Now, they are taking steps forward. Not everything moves at the same speed, and there are going to be different speeds in the Middle East.”

“This kind of mealy-mouthed talk from Washington must have been the best news President Mubarak had all day,” Stork said. “When push came to shove, as it did literally in Cairo on Wednesday, the Bush administration’s commitment to reform looked bankrupt.”

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