Skip to main content

“The Mubarak era is back,” the police officer told Sayyed, a 23-year-old from the Nile Delta province of Sharqiya, as he was interrogating him in a Cairo police station earlier this month. Police had arrested Sayyed after passengers on a minibus overheard him expressing support for deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi.

Sayyed and a group of fellow Morsi supporters were telling me their stories in a tent at the pro-Morsi encampment run by the Muslim Brotherhood next to the Rabaa al-Adawiyya mosque, in an eastern suburb of Cairo. In the background, under the glare of floodlights, Brotherhood leaders were hammering home over loudspeakers their key message: The army’s July 3 removal of President Morsi was a military coup.

Ahmed, a 22-year-old from Fayyoum, west of Cairo, recounted how he was one of hundreds of Morsi supporters arrested in the early hours of July 8 when the police and military clashed with pro-Morsi protesters outside the Republican Guard headquarters on the airport road. More than 50 protesters died, most of them hit with live ammunition.

The military claim it was attacked first by “terrorists,” but the evidence Human Rights Watch has uncovered so far indicates clashes started only after police tried to clear the protesters during pre-dawn prayers.

Ahmed and Sayyed were both eventually released on bail, but not before they had been given a stern lesson — accompanied by slaps and insults — that the old police state against which Egyptians rebelled in January 2011 was now firmly running the show.

The old security apparatus, of course, continued to wield huge influence in Egypt after Mubarak’s fall, both during the transition overseen by the military and since Morsi’s election. But the decades-old police repression of the Brotherhood had come to an end. Now it is back.

Morsi himself and his presidential team remain in detention, incommunicado and without charges, more than three weeks after their removal from power. Police have arrested at least 16more Brotherhood leaders on charges of incitement to violence and other alleged crimes. They have also closed down several Islamist media outlets and arrested journalists sympathetic to the Brotherhood, leaving the crude pro-military propaganda unchallenged in the mainstream media.

There are real concerns that unless the military reaches a deal with the Muslim Brotherhood on its inclusion in the political process that was newly mapped out by Gen. Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi, the repression of the Brotherhood and its supporters will intensify – with dangerous consequences.

There’s no doubt that Morsi’s own human rights failures — on top of numerous political missteps — are much to blame for the current crisis. Top of the list is his failure to reform or hold accountable the very security forces now bearing down on him and his supporters. Their abusive ways were a key grievance of those who rose up against Mubarak in 2011. Reforming the security sector was and remains a big job.

But Morsi didn’t seriously attempt it. Instead, apparently hoping he could win over the security forces, he shelved a report on military and police killings of peaceful protesters in the first 18 months of the post-Mubarak era.

In the absence of accountability, it’s hardly surprising that police abuse and excessive use of force continued under Morsi, leading among other incidents to the killing of 48 people last December in Port Said.

Morsi also failed to dismantle other elements of the repressive police state he inherited when he won Egypt’s first free elections a year ago. While press freedom has been one of the main gains of the 2011 revolution, prosecutors continued to go after journalists and political activists with Mubarak-era laws that criminalize dissent.

Tolerance of sectarian hate speech and failure to prevent new bouts of sectarian violence against religious minorities, a recurrent problem under Mubarak, worsened under Morsi, with Islamist leaders using sectarianism to whip up popular support. Under Morsi, new laws were drafted on demonstrations, associations, and unions. But they failed to address the repressive elements of the previous laws and in some areas further curtailed freedoms.

There were of course many reasons why hundreds of thousands of Egyptians flooded their streets and squares on June 30 to demand Morsi’s departure, providing the cue for the military to remove Morsi from the presidency three days later. But the fear that Egypt’s newfound freedoms were being stifled by the Muslim Brotherhood’s authoritarian methods and its determination to impose its Islamist agenda were prominent among them.

Both were on display in the Brotherhood’s handling of the rewriting of Egypt’s constitution last year when Morsi declared his decisions beyond judicial review and pushed through a constitution that left the door open to strict interpretations of Islamic law that would undermine freedom of expression and the rights of women and minorities.

So, two and half years after the revolution, Egypt’s civil society movement — an optimistic, fractious, diverse, inclusive, and leaderless crowd of activists, unionists, bloggers, artists, journalists, feminists, and others — that did so much to bring it about remains tragically pincered between two of modern Egypt’s oldest, least accountable, and least transparent institutions: the army and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Human rights activists in particular find themselves in an awkward and uncomfortable predicament. Criticize the abuses of the military and you are accused by supporters of the coup of giving succour to an Islamist movement that they say has been exposed as having an authoritarian agenda antithetical to human rights. Criticize the abuses of the Muslim Brotherhood and you are accused by Islamists of providing justification for a bloody coup by a security apparatus that has long used repression and coercion to curtail political freedom.

In this polarized and dangerous situation, U.S. policymakers should not only press for a return to democratic rule but also reinforce the calls of local rights activists for respect for basic freedoms, accountability, and reform of the security sector. Without those underpinnings, Egypt’s democratic experiment will continue to flounder and the demands of Tahrir Square for bread, social justice, and dignity will remain a mirage. The alternative is the jackboot and the machine gun.

Tom Porteous is deputy program director at Human Rights Watch.

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.

Region / Country