The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

The Nasr City arrests

In the comments to the post below about the bombing in Islamic Cairo, Praktike asked whether there could be any links to the recent spate of arrests in Nasr City. I had meant to post about those earlier but have been overwhelmed with work, so here it is now. (Here is a Human Rights Watch statement about the arrests for the background.)

On Monday, I received an email from a good friend who works as a journalist and has also been active in left-wing movements in Egypt (he's also been arrested a few times, once as we were coming out of a McDonald's on Tahrir Square.) This is the message he sent to journalists and friends:

Dear all,

State Security has picked up two of my cousins today by 4am, together with an unknown number of religious students in my neighborhood, Nasr City.

A group of four State Security agents, led by Lt. Col. Hisham Tawfiq, went to their house by dawn, searched the house, room by room, and confiscated papers and their computer.

Their mother was told it was a "standard security procedure," and that the boys would be back in two hours. They haven't come back home yet, however, by the time I'm writing you this email.

My cousins, Abul-Fotouh Tahsin, 21, and Tahsin Tahsin, 23, are both students who largely refrain from politics. The first is a member of Tabligh wal Daawa, which is an apolitical religious preaching network.

I understood from their mother that they used to pray in a local mosque, whose imam, Sheikh Hani was picked up few days ago, apparently after a Friday seremon.

A Tablighi member, who asked not to mention his name, told me State Security picked up around nine suspects in Nasr City over the past three days. He stressed, however, the detainees were not members of the Tabligh, and that they were just "religious, with beards." "They usually detain them for a couple of days, interrogate them, and ask them to 'behave themselves,'" he said.

I tried to get the names of those who were picked up from this Tablighi preacher, but he told me "everyone is afraid, and families think they may get in trouble if they speak."

State Security has been embaring on a campaign against any voices of dissent recently in Egypt. The campaign is targeting Liberals, leftists, Muslim Brothers, and now they are turning even on the apolitical religious forces.

Please spread the word around about what's happening, and forward this to all your human rights contacts.

As you can see, my friend has an interesting family: a left-winger himself, he has cousins who are Islamists. Ironically although he's been in trouble several times for participating in demos, his apolitical but devout cousins now face a much more serious ordeal than he ever did.

This latest crackdown seems centered around Nasr City, and there is special significance in this if you know the political geography of Cairo. Nasr City is a modern neighborhood outside of the city center that has grown since the 1960s to be quite large. It is a relatively prosperous neighborhood, generally middle and upper-middle class. Historically, a lot of the families who built or bought homes there had a military background; land in the area was made available cheaply for the officer class. This is not to say that everyone there is military, but rather that the type of people who live there are more likely than most to have relatives in the officer corps.

This is significant because, if we consider the events that have taken place in Georgia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, and to a lesser extent Lebanon, a key component of the success of the reformist movements there has been that the military was unwilling to go against protesters. In Egypt, it has always seemed to me that the military was firmly on Mubarak's side, and would act to squash an uprising, in the unlikely event that it would take place, even if the Central Security forces (the first line of defense) refuses to. In Lebanon, for instance, the more independent (and much less powerful) army was reportedly told to go against the opposition demos on their first day by President Emile Lahoud but refused to do so.

Which all leads me to wonder whether, at a time when Mubarak is coming under direct attack from domestic opponents and stiff (if indirect) criticism by the US, the army's key sponsor, the regime is getting concerned with any opposition to the re-election of Mubarak for another five year term. This is all rather speculative of course, but in April 2001 (during the largest pro-Palestinian demos of the second intifada at the time of the incursion into Jenin) and March 2003 (during the large anti-Iraq war protests) there were rumors of thwarted coups. The most detailed one was in 2001, when there were reports of some 100 mid-level officers being retired and paid off to leave the service. Neither of these were ever confirmed by reliable sources (they both started, I believe, on Islamist websites), but I think that the fact they were going around is significant in itself.

If there is some dissent with the military about whether Mubarak should remain, or whether they'd like Omar Suleiman (who comes from the civilian security services) or someone else (presumably a military officer), these Nasr City arrests could be part of a closer monitoring of military people and their extended families. Again, pure speculation and conjecture, but it's worth thinking about.