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No Joy in Egypt

A year after the revolution started, human rights abuses continue under the ruling military council.

Published in: LA Times

As Egypt marks the first anniversary of the Jan. 25 civilian revolt that eventually toppled the 30-year rule of Hosni Mubarak, there's no agreement – on how to celebrate or even whether rejoicing is in order.

The current military rulers – the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, or SCAF – want to hold parades and aerial jet exhibitions to exult in the revolution, of which their main part was to ease Mubarak out of power. Youth groups and democracy activists who originally engineered the uprising are carrying on a campaign called "The Generals are Liars," with mini-demonstrations and audiovisual presentations in the streets documenting police and military abuses. Islamic politicians, triumphant in recent parliamentary elections, extol the military's role while pressing for an eventual transfer of power to civilians.

As for human rights, though, just what do Egyptians have to celebrate? Not all that much – a sad commentary on the uprising in the Middle East's most populous country, one that is a reference point for regional politics despite its poverty and stagnation.

Yes, Mubarak is on trial for the killings of protesters, which is at least a symbolic repudiation of his oppressive reign. Yes, Egypt held a free election for a new parliament in which Islamic parties prevailed in competition with secular and liberal slates. Yes, independent media work hard to bird-dog government malfeasance.

Yet, much of 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.

Egypt seated a new parliament on Monday. It should act quickly to wipe clean the slate of laws that restrict free speech, association and assembly and that permit police too much latitude to shoot protesters. Members of the parliament should limit military court jurisdiction to military officials and repeal the emergency law. Egypt's foreign friends – including the aid-giving U.S. government – should wholeheartedly support the reforms and resist suggestions that continued dictatorship means stability.

With Egypt's revolution in its first stages, the time is now for the parliament to end Egypt's long-term rule by military fiat.

*Daniel Williams is a senior researcher in the emergencies division of Human Rights Watch*

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