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“They took Alaa and beat Manal”

These words rocketed across Egypt’s social networks Thursday night, marking a new, ominous turn in the government’s crackdown on dissident voices.

Around 20 armed policemen, some masked, broke down the door of well-known activist Alaa Abdelfattah on the night of Nov. 28, according to his wife Manal.  The police confiscated their laptops and mobile phones. When Alaa had asked to see an arrest warrant they beat him and slapped her.

The arrest came a day after prosecutors issued arrest warrants for Alaa Abdelfattah and fellow activist Ahmad Maher on charges of having organized a protest without notification.

The string of events that led up to Alaa’s arrest began on November 24 when interim president Adly Mansour issued a deeply repressive law that gives the Ministry of Interior full authority to ban any protest, forcibly disperse protests, and arrest protesters on vague grounds such as “attempt[ing] to influence the course of justice” or “impede citizen’s interests.” Three days later the No To Military trials group held a small peaceful  protest without notifying the Interior Ministry three days ahead, as the new law requires. The police violently broke up the protest, and arrested at least 72 protesters. The fact that police officials allowed the media to film its violent dispersal and beating of some of the women protesters as they were being arrested on November 26 shows they believe the law legitimates the crackdown on protests.

On November 27 prosecutors issued arrest warrants for Alaa Abdelfattah and Ahmad Maher on charges of having organized the protest without notification, which is punishable by  a fine and imprisonment under the new law and the 1923 law which is still in force. Police raided his apartment Nov. 28 despite the fact that Alaa had formally informed the prosecution that he would appear before them on Saturday November 30.

Alaa’s arrest appears punitive, intended to intimidate and deter  activists who go to protests , marking a shift in the crackdown to include non-Islamist activists as well as Muslim Brotherhood supporters. Over the past five months police have arrested hundreds of Brotherhood supporters in connection with protests. Prosecutors have been cooperating with the Interior Ministry by rubber stamping pretrial detention renewal orders, and judges have handed down disproportionately heavy sentences for “illegal assembly.”

The police have seen the  July 3 ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood  as vindication, and seem intent on eradicating the memory of  the uprising of January 2011 that toppled Mubarak and the accompanying calls for accountability and police reform.  This is why the arrest warrants for Alaa and Ahmad Maher are important - they are a test of how far security agencies can go.  They are both among the few brave voices criticizing the police and the military  If security agencies can get away with harassing Alaa for a protest he didn’t even call for, on the basis of this highly restrictive law, then there appear to be few if any checks on their abusive powers.

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