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Can Official Response to Street Protests Adversely Affect Egypt's Future? - 2003-04-06

For nearly a month, following Friday prayers in Egypt, tens of thousands of people have been demonstrating against the U.S.-led war in Iraq. The protests have intensified since the war began, and Egyptian security forces have used force to break up many of them. Many activists are calling the Egyptian government's crackdown on anti-war sentiment a violation of human rights.

Extra heavy security prevented a planned anti-war protest in Cairo this past Friday. But even though there was no demonstration, human rights activists said, police continued arresting, detaining, and even abusing some would-be participants and observers.

Human rights activists in Egypt said several hundred people have been arrested in the series of protests, including lawyers, university students, opposition leaders and journalists. Many have reportedly been subsequently released.

Egyptian Interior Minister Habib El-Adli issued a statement reminding potential protesters of the 23-year-old Emergency Law, which strictly bans street demonstrations unless they are approved by the government. But many activists said that, even when permission is granted, police often prevent or break up the protests.

At the Hisham Mubarak Law Center in Cairo, Executive Director Ahmed Seif Al Islam Mohamed said the Egyptian government sees the protests as a threat. And he said the harsh reaction is a bad sign for Egypt's future.

"The court supported this demonstration today, and they arrested around 100 persons. What the Egyptian government does now - they try to stop the Egyptians to criticize Hosni Mubarak regime, which leads Egypt to a very critical situation," Mr. Mohamed said.

The government said the demonstrations violated Egyptian law, and that the security forces must intervene if protesters turn violent. Officials said fewer than 30 people have been arrested during the protests.

Officials also point out that nearly 15,000 people were allowed to demonstrate two Fridays ago in a government-sponsored anti-war protest. Thousands have also rallied in the port city of Alexandria and other Egyptian cities.

But three human rights groups have issued a statement warning that fundamental freedoms in Egypt are under threat.

Human Rights Watch, the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, and Physicians for Human Rights said the arrests send the message that dissent in Egypt will be brutally suppressed, and they are deeply alarmed by that message.

In an unapproved demonstration two weeks ago in Cairo, 10,000 to 15,000 demonstrators worked their way downtown, set a fire truck ablaze and were met by police with clubs.

A day later, plainclothes police arrested Hossam El Hamalawy, an Egyptian journalist working for the Los Angeles Times newspaper. He said they threw him into a truck and took him to state security headquarters. He was released after 12 hours. Mr. El Hamalawy said the police were on edge.

"There was a sense of anxiety. I mean, the security service (was) worried that what happened on Friday, which were like the biggest riots this city has witnessed since 1977, could develop into something much more militant," said the journalist.

Analysts say one concern is that protesters could turn their anger on the Egyptian government for its close relationship with the United States, and could also raise such issues as the poor state of Egypt's economy and the restrictions built into its political system.

But at the Human Rights Center for the Assistance of Prisoners in Cairo, director Mohamed Zarei said the harsh police reaction could only make matters worse for the government.

Mr. Zarei said the crackdown will mobilize people against the government. He said it will create a belief that Arab leaders are supporting the coalition attack on Iraq. If this idea takes root, he said, it could arouse instability throughout the Arab world.