• Reports
  • June 7, 2006
  • 13 minutes read

Egypt on the Brink: Recent Repression Can Only Breed Violence

President Hosni Mubarak’s message to Egyptians lately could not be clearer: I control everything and there’s nothing you can do to change that. Peacefully, anyway.

What else could he mean when he sends his security forces to brutally beat and drag to jail men and women peacefully demonstrating for the very reforms that just a year ago Mubarak himself claimed to be championing.

What else could Mubarak’s message have been when two of Egypt’s most respected judges had their immunity lifted and were sent to a disciplinary hearing daring to expose fraud in November’s parliamentary elections?

At least 14 people were killed during those elections when Mubarak’s security thugs fired tear gas, rubber coated bullets and at times live ammunition at Egyptians who had the temerity to try to vote.

Hisham al-Bastaweesy, one of the two judges, was disciplined for capturing the tragi-comedic farce of those elections when he said last year: “The government spent millions of pounds on advertising campaigns to persuade Egyptians to get out and vote. But it spent millions more to prevent those who heeded the campaigns from voting.”

Mubarak’s message is equally deafening to journalists and bloggers determined to tell the world what he is doing to Egypt. Ask Abeer al-Askary the journalist with the independent newspaper al-Dostour whom his security forces dragged to a police station where they beat her blue, ripped off her headscarf and some of her clothes, threatened her with rape and then dumped on a street corner.

Ask Manal Bahey El-Din, activist and blogger whose husband Alaa Abdel Fattah was abducted by security forces from a peaceful demonstration in support of the judges. Alaa, along with 47 others arrested at protests over the past few weeks, has been charged with among other things “insulting the president”.

That such a charge even exists highlights what Egyptians who dare to challenge the State are up against.

Full disclosure: This is not a dispassionate oped about Egypt. This is personal on many levels. Alaa’s arrest has hit particularly close to home because he is the reason I returned to Egypt last year, after five years away, determined to do what I could to take part in and help my country’s reform movement.

After I read an entry in the blog he ran with Manal about how he and his mother had been beaten by security forces during a demonstration on May 25, 2005, I wrote to tell him he made me proud to be Egyptian and I decided it was time to go home.

I spent five months of last year covering that reform movement and marched in many a demonstration alongside Alaa, Manal and many of the men and women currently in Mubarak’s jails for their protests.

The last time I spoke to Alaa he had called to ask me if I was alright after I was summoned to State Security for an anti-Mubarak oped I wrote in the International Herald Tribune. My summons was proof I was doing something right, he told me. And now his detention is proof – and none is needed – that Alaa has been right all along.

Alaa’s arrest has hit particularly hard for so many of us concerned with reform in Egypt because of his youth and because he was such an active blogger. Blogging in the Arab world is the only channel for the region’s young – who comprise the majority – to express their views. Satellite television channels have shaken the stale state-owned monopolies but they are still a bastion of the old.

That Alaa, 24, wrote his blog entries in the colloquial Egyptian dialect of the street, of the ordinary man and woman, was especially significant. The modern standard Arabic that dominates the mainstream media in the Arab world has long robbed that ordinary man and woman of their spontaneity and imposed a formality that is often far removed from their daily concerns.

As that ordinary man and woman watch two respected judges disciplined, what must they be thinking? Surely they are thinking that if this could happen to judges then worse awaits them me if they try to stand up to Mubarak?

As that ordinary man and woman watch their fellow Egyptians being kicked and dragged away from demonstrations into waiting security vehicles, surely they must wonder how useful peaceful protests are but more importantly they will continue to shelter behind the fear and that is what Mubarak wants.

The two judges who blew the whistle on election fraud have become the focal point of the reform movement that the Egyptian regime is determined to crush. They are our biggest hope against Mubarak’s absolute grip on power.

But the more those batons crack down on the bones of those young demonstrators – many of whom have known no other leader than Mubarak – the clearer it becomes that Mubarak is pushing Egypt to a violence it can ill afford.

“Egypt is burning,” I hear again and again from relatives and friends in Cairo. Mubarak has set it on fire.


Mona Eltahawy is a New York-based commentator. Her website is at www.monaeltahawy.com and she can be reached at [email protected]

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