Egypt’s Critics Have a Voice, but Never the Last Word

Egypt’s Critics Have a Voice, but Never the Last Word

In Egypt, there is relative freedom to complain about and criticize the government, even the feared security services. Egypt is not Syria in that way, or Saudi Arabia, where public criticism aimed at the state is often dealt with harshly.

But that is where freedom stops.

“I call it the freedom to scream,” said Fahmy Howeidy, a writer who has often criticized the government without penalty. “You can say what you want. But you cannot act.”

The detention this month of Philip Rizk, an Egyptian-German who organized a peaceful march in support of Palestinians in Gaza, received international attention because of his dual nationality and because he was held incommunicado and without charge.

But what made Mr. Rizk’s case extraordinary was how routine it actually was, according to political activists, political scientists, bloggers, Islamists, former prisoners and human rights groups here and abroad. It is all too common for the security services to grab citizens, detain them without charge, refuse to release any information concerning their whereabouts and deny them even the minimal protections, under an emergency law passed decades ago to help fight terrorism.

“In Egypt, it’s sort of a soft dictatorship,” said Gamal Eid, executive director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information in Cairo. “They want to have a pleasant image. But Egypt is ruled by the security apparatus.”

The security services appear to have decided that it is generally acceptable to write for a newspaper. But bloggers are another matter. For some reason, as yet unexplained, blogging seems to cross the line from speaking to acting.

It may be that bloggers, by nature, are less willing to stop at the edge of what criticism is tolerated. Newspaper writers, for example, are cautious about how they deal with the president; bloggers have often attacked him head-on.

Many bloggers have been arrested and beaten and thrown in jail. Mr. Eid said his organization was handling more than 100 cases of bloggers facing criminal charges. He keeps on his wall a snapshot of Abdul Kareem Nabeel Suleiman, a young blogger sentenced to four years in prison for criticizing President Hosni Mubarak and the state’s religious institutions.

Karim el-Beheiri is a blogger too. He is a nervous wreck. His legs don’t stop jumping, his eyes dart around, and he smokes three packs a day. He suffers memory loss and fatigue. He’s been that way since he was held without charge for 73 days by state security — even after a judge ordered his release.

Mr. Beheiri, 25, wrote about corruption and workers’ rights. He worked in a state-owned textile factory where tens of thousands of workers went on strike last April in a dispute with the government over wages. He said he had been beaten, shocked, handcuffed and manacled through much of his ordeal.

“For a second, after the judge said I should be freed, I thought there really were laws in this country,” Mr. Beheiri said, dragging on a cigarette.

Diaa Eddin Gad, 23, another blogger, was grabbed the same day as Mr. Rizk and has not been heard from since.

But there is a gray line through it all. The Muslim Brotherhood — a religious and social movement that wants to see Egypt ruled by Islamic law — is legally banned and its members are often arrested, even tried before military courts. But it has offices around the country and is allowed to operate religious and charitable activities.

There are some critics who say that the government allows the brotherhood to survive so that Egyptian officials can say to the West that they are fighting to keep the Islamists from power.

Still, 740 of its members were arrested because they protested in support of the Palestinians in Gaza.

“There is a red line: don’t make a big deal of your ideas,” said Nasser Hobshi, 42, an engineer, as he sat with friends at an outdoor cafe near the stock exchange.

There are laws on the books that provide for some degree of due process. Even the emergency law, which gives the government broad powers to ignore civil protections in the Constitution and to detain citizens without charge, requires the authorities to make public that a person was detained, legal experts here said. But, they say, the rules are often ignored, largely because the security forces operate with impunity.

There is also a belief among some political activists here that Egypt’s leaders think the new administration in Washington is too busy with the transition and the economic crisis to think much about repression in Cairo.

“It’s an old regime that doesn’t have the imagination to find new answers,” said Hassan Nafaa, a former political science professor at Cairo University. “This pattern of repression — it is not the result of a political vision; it is the product of a security apparatus.”

The government disputes the criticism. Gen. Hamdy Abdel Karim, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, said: “None of these false allegations on the part of wrongdoers are going to stop me from exercising my authority to enforce stability and order. Anyone in trouble will try to justify his position.”

He added: “Your impression is wrong, wrong, wrong, because you’re listening to some bloggers. But to get the real general impression, you have to go back to the street and ask the people who deal with the police on a daily basis.”

Where better to ask than in bustling Falaki Square, where Sayed Mohammed, 50, had a cigarette in his mouth as he tinkered with the engine of his white Peugeot.

“Of course there are laws,” he said with a quick qualification: “Texts.”

“They say the people who go to jail are against the government,” he said. “But when you look at how the system works here, you see that it’s the government who is against the people.”

Nadim Audi contributed reporting