Egypt Cracks Down on Dissent

Egyptian human rights groups say about 360 people have been arrested over the past three weeks in what many are calling the biggest crackdown on political dissent in recent memory.  Most of the arrests have taken place at protests in support of two fraud-busting judges who have become symbols of judicial independence and the push for political reform.  

Hundreds of demonstrators chanting slogans faced off last week against thousands of riot police and plainclothes State Security officers responding with fists and batons.

Scores of protesters were dragged off into police vehicles, becoming the latest to be arrested in a police crackdown that has lasted more than three weeks.

Anti-government street protests were unheard of in Cairo just a few years ago, but they have become relatively commonplace since the end of 2004, with the birth of the reform movement known as Kifaya, an Arabic word meaning "enough."

Mohammed El-Sayed Sa'id is both a senior member of Kifaya and a deputy director of the state-run Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

"It is my belief that the state really has been waiting for the right moment to roll back some of the gains achieved by Kifaya and other reform movements ...   And I do believe that the first priority for the police state is to roll back the right to rally, and to kill it," Sa'id says. "This is why they showed such a level of determination, and they are obviously willing to go all the way, filling Egyptian jails with reform activists."

The arrests have targeted protesters who have taken to the streets in support of two pro-reform judges who face a disciplinary hearing and could lose their jobs because they went public with allegations of fraud in last year's parliamentary elections.  They have become a symbol for the pro-reform movement.

The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights says about 360 people have been arrested over the last three weeks.  But organization board member Gasser Abdel-Razek says the crackdown appears to have been designed to scare people away from protests and sit-ins in support of the judges.

"They could have defused this a long time ago," he says. "I think their analysis was if they start arresting people, people will not go back on the streets.  They started the new wave of arrests on the 24th of April thinking that people will not be showing up on the streets to support the judges on the 27th.  Yet people were there on the 27th and again on the 11th, and it does not seem that people are going back home."

On the contrary, he says, it may have actually galvanized the fragmented reform movement.  The protest last Thursday was the biggest in months.

Until recently Egypt appeared to be on the road to democratic reforms. 

Last year, President Hosni Mubarak for the first time allowed other candidates on the presidential election ballot.  He allowed street protests calling for an end to his rule.  The banned Muslim Brotherhood was allowed to field an unprecedented number of candidates in the parliamentary poll.

But the arrest of the protesters is just one sign that Egypt's short-lived era of political reforms may be over. 

Ayman Nour, the opposition candidate who placed a distant second in last year's presidential election, is in jail, sentenced to five years for forgery after what many see as a flawed, politically charged trial.  The government postponed municipal elections for two years.  President Mubarak recently renewed the restrictive emergency law, which he had pledged during his election campaign to repeal.

Georgetown University professor Samer Shehata, an expert in Egyptian politics, says all those issues are connected.

"And I think all of this is related, and all of this has to be understood as a general closing of political space in Egypt over the last four or five months, contrasted with what we saw at the end of 2004 and generally in 2005, which was political liberalization, an opening up of political space and promises by the regime of political reform," Shehata says.

One thing the Kifaya movement and its offshoots say they have done is opened the door for freedom of expression, political dissent, and previously unheard-of criticism of the president.

But Shehata says the gains may not ne long lived.

"These gains are not irreversible," he says. "They might be harder to take back, and there might be some friction involved, as we are seeing now.  But there is no inexorable logic in the march to democracy, that leads all of us inevitably [to] an end state of democratic politics ... and unfortunately, they are not irreversible."

The pro-reform activists are planning a number of new protests before the end of the month, in support of the judges. 

A major showdown was expected Thursday, when the judges' disciplinary hearing had been scheduled to resume.  But one of the judges, Hisham Bastawisy, had a heart attack and is still in the hospital, so it is not clear what will happen with either the trial or the demonstrations that were expected to accompany it.  

The interior ministry issued a statement Tuesday making it very clear that demonstrations without permits will not be tolerated.  And so organizers and activists are expecting more arrests.  

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