The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Violent repression of peaceful demos continue

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This morning I went to Downtown Cairo to see what would happen at a demo in support of the rebel judges Ahmed Mekki and Hisham Bastawissi, whose trial is taking place at the nearby High Court. There were two peaceful demos around Talaat Harb Street, since the court had been completely cordoned off since the early morning. One, with 200-300 people (possibly more) was led by Muslim Brothers. The second I saw was much smaller and seemed to be an initiative by the Pharmacists' Syndicate to show solidarity with the Judges' Club.

Both were violently broken up within minutes of starting, mostly by plainclothes officers. Unlike previous cases, young baltaguia (thugs) were not used, and instead middle-aged men with walkie-talkies seemed to do most of the beating. While brutal, they seemed more restrained than the younger crowds used in the past few weeks. Nonetheless, they were quite exasperated with the media presence, hassling several colleagues and shoving away photographers. Some journalists and other observers got into shouting matches with officers who were beating up protesters, at in one or two points they were shoved hard and threatened with beatings. This seemed to happen to both men and women.

I'm putting up a few pictures here, but I've uploaded a much larger bunch to this Flickr account. Go to page three and work your way back to see them chronologically for the captions to make sense. (High-resolution pictures are available; see "about" section if you want to contact me.)

More details to come later.

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Update: A friend writes in:

A group of journalists met at 9am in preparation to observe the demonstrations in solidarity with the judges being internally tried by their pro-regime colleagues, which was scheduled to convene at the High Court (Dar al-Qadaa al-Uliya) on Ramsis Street in Downtown at 10am this morning. We walked to the area of the High Court and Syndicates. Starting from Talaat Harb Square, there were tens of Central Security Forces (CSF) Transportation trucks and armored trucks. The CSF sealed off the road to the syndicates that connects them to Ramsis street (Abdel Khaliq Thawrat Street. Unlike the previous demonstration I attended 10 days ago, the plain-clothes state security thugs were not organized and lined up along the shop fronts. Yet, they were being kept elsewhere in a less conspicuous place because they soon would be deployed. As it later became clear, they were being deployed on a rapid response basis whenever and where a demonstration commenced.

As we walked on northward on Talaat Harb street towards the intersection where you can see the back of the High Court, a march of protesters was taking place. A contact from the group that was participating in the march approached me. We had not seen one another in a while and I asked him about the organization of the march. He said there was a thousand present. I repeated the figure but would have guessed between 500-800. The marchers chanted three main types of slogans. One dealt with support for the judges. Another about how state security belonged to Egypt not to the state. The third slogan was “We are coming…..We are coming.”

A friend and I walked behind the marchers and were getting a feel for the atmosphere as the marchers turned left onto Adly Street. I was initially shocked they were letting them march. Yet, within 300 meters of being on Adly Street, people turned around and began running in the opposite direction when plain-clothes State Security thugs attacked the marchers. We followed suit and turned off the main street. After the initial threat of being attacked by those we could not see subsided, we regrouped with our larger circle of friends on intersection of the street parallel to Talaat Harb and Adly streets. We walked south on that street and as I looked up I saw three plain clothes state security personnel forcibly escorting a protester coming towards us. One state security officer was on each side holding the demonstrator while the third officer punched him in the face, in the stomach, and slapped him on the head. The protester could not defend himself. After that protester passed, I noticed a second but identical incident occurring in front of us. About this time, a female journalist pulled out her camera and snapped a picture. The man beating the protester ran towards her with the intent of taking her camera. The journalist was frightened and retreated. The thug did not relent. A friend of mine and I stepped between the female journalist and the thug. As he starred us down, I said to him, “She is a journalist.” He did care. The journalist was screaming “No! No! No!” at him. He looked at me and said “And where are you from?” I said “America” and he asked “Where in America?” I felt like saying any small town name from any obscure state and asking the ignorant bastard if he knew it. He asked for my press card. I told him “I don’t have one.” Then he threatened me by saying, “I will take you and then we call the US embassy and let them sort out your problem.” My friend injected and said there was no problem. The security officer snapped back, “And who are you?” He replied respectfully and the officer tried to further intimidate us. To my shock, my friend cracked a smile and remained polite. A more senior officer in a suit walked by and told the subordinate minion to leave us alone and “not to hit anyone”. Then, he shot us one last dirty look and we parted.

We turned right to get on the street parallel to Adly Street and then right again to get back on Talaat Harb Street. We proceeded to the intersection from where we could see the back of the High Court, which was behind phalanxes of CSF. About this time, more CSF were showing up on street corners. I thought it was in case of an emergency that they could quickly seal the streets off. We were standing and chatting near the CSF at the High Court when a group gathered. A friend went over and said that they were interviewing someone. When the interview ended, applause roared out from through watching the man giving the interview. Within 30-seconds that group started holding up signs that read “Pharmacists of Egypt with Judges of Egypt”. They were chanting slogans. Journalists started talking to protesters and video journalists were recording the scene. My guess is that there were 30-50 people participating in the ad hoc demo. Within 2 minutes a battalion of around 200 plain-clothes State Security thugs emerged from the southward direction on Talaat Harb Street. A majority of those thugs sieged the demonstrators carrying them away in groups of, at least, three-on-one as they beat them into submission. They were stuffing the demonstrators they carted away into the entrances of non-descript downtown buildings.

At that point, I also saw thugs attacking journalists. They beat the Al-Jazeera video cameraperson as well as the Reuters videographer. Then they began attacking female Egyptian/American journalists. By this point, I was distancing myself away from the core of the scuffle to get some protection and perspective. All I can hear was a female screaming bloody murder as State Security pulled her hair and tried to steal her camera.

We managed to all escaped southward and into the Excelsior café across from the Miami cinema to regroup. All the women journalists I was with were shaken up and a little roughed up but not injured.

Shortly afterwards, we returned to the intersection of Talaat Harb Street and the High Court. All the while I was getting phone calls from other journalists from different parts of Ramsis street, Talaat Harb Sq, and other parts of downtown. All reported the same scene. Ad hoc, sporadic protests emerged when there was enough space and two or three minutes later, teams of state security thugs emerged to break up and disperse the gatherings. Some would be carted off and arrested, other beaten, others would get away to regroup in another part of downtown.

It was not long before another group of protesters emerged on the particular corner next to us. Basically, people would gather as spectators and look down at the court. When protesters felt enough had assembled, they began holding up signs and chanting before the thugs came back to break up the gathering. After this one was broken up, I walked along the sidewalk and saw people’s shoes that had come off laying on the sidewalk. There was also a broken cheap, gold-colored watch also laying on the ground.

Feeling that I had seen enough although the day was far from over, I decided to leave the area and take reports from the field.

Basically to sum-up my experience this morning: A significant amount of people (Islamists, MB, Kifaya, liberals, pharmacists, and others) came out to protest in solidarity against the trumped-up joke that has become the Egyptian legal system’s pro-regime lackeys trying their own. While the amounts of security made one unified gathering impossible, a number of sporadic protests took place when possible. It was sort of like a game of cat and mouse.

I have often questioned the utility of all the protesting that has occurred in Cairo since December 2004. Yet, today was impressive to watch people come out and start chanting when they knew security was going to respond within minutes – arresting some of them, beating some of them. Rather than give up, the remaining protesters would disperse and regroup and challenge the state again, against all hopes of actually achieving anything. Their bravery and their tenacity should be commended. Regardless of the people detained since 24 April (according to HRW, the number is over 100), people continue to turn out in the face of their decreasing numbers.

Also, reports came in that said that a CSF truck fell over the 6th October Bridge in Abbasaya killing 10 and injuring 20 of the CSF conscripts.
This state is hopeless. It is authoritarian and rotten to its core and one can only hope that some sort of change occurs. Yet, I remain skeptical that no matter how brave or stubborn the social forces resisting the state are, that much can be achieved. In Egypt, there can be no third way. This is not a state that is behaving like its scared or weak. It is a state that is boldly asserting its repressive power against its unarmed citizens. This state is not interested in practicing politics. It is incapable of dealing with its polity politically or diffusing political problems. Instead, it relies on repression, coercion, and intimidation. A high majority of Egyptians will be forced in acquiescence through fear. Yet, fear cannot and will not ever expand regime power.

Lastly, word has emerged that the judges under trial – Hisham Bastawisi and Mahmoud Mekki - went to the High Court this morning accompanied by their lawyers and a delegation of judges. They were told that their entourage could not enter the High Court. Instead, only 8 people would be allowed to enter and the court informed them that it reserved the right to select their delegates. Bastawisi and Mekki refused to enter after this gross insult. They left the court and returned to the Judges Club where they remain hold up with scores of their colleagues. They say they will not be going to any more court cases until the Security Forces are removed from the streets and the protesters are released.

The pro-reform judges were Egypt’s heroes before today. Now, they are not only heroes but legends. And they are the most important symbols of this very nasty and seemingly hopeless struggle for the political heart and future of Egypt.

The trial was postponed and is scheduled to reconvene next Thursday, May 18th.

Bastawisi and Mekki published an article in yesterday’s Guardian they concluded:

In Egypt we don't have any confidence in US policy because it is a contradictory policy that pays lip service to democracy while supporting dictatorships. We have confidence in the Egyptian people. We welcome support from any quarter, but we won't rely on it. We will depend on ourselves in our campaign for reform and change.

After watching the way this farce of a state behaved today (and for the past five months) as well as the Americans' utter silence, it is safe to say that the judges are reading the situation correctly. The American and the Egyptian governments should both be ashamed of themselves. If, for no other reason, than it has become abundantly and irrefutably clear that they view Egyptian democracy in exactly the same manner whether authorizing security forces to repress peaceful dissent or remaining silent in the wake of repression.
Update 2: Two releases on today's events have higher numbers than cited thus far and details of arrests. From the Socialist Studies Center, the informal HQ of the Revolutionary Socialists, a Trotskyite outfit that constitute a core component of Kifaya activists:

Socialist Studies Center- Press Release

The Egyptian Dictatorship is losing control, arresting more than 500 hundred –final figures not clear yet- demonstrators mostly from the Muslim Brotherhood and closing downtown Cairo with tens of thousands of Security forces.

More than 500 freedom fighters join their fellow activists –188 men and women arrested in the past two weeks- in prison today. With unprecedented levels of repression and violence the Egyptian State Security forces have managed to abort the joint demonstration in Support of the Judges’ Movement. More than 500 demonstrators have been arrested including Mohamed Abdel Kodos, Mohamed El- Kassas, Dr. Gamal El-Ashry and Omar Abdallah from the Muslim Brotherhood, Abdel Aziz El-Hussainy from Kifaya, and Mohsen Hashem from the Labor Party.

The demonstration was coordinated by The Muslim Brotherhood, The Egyptian Movement for Change (Kifaya), the Revolutionary Socialists, Tomorrow Party (El Ghad), Labor Party, Youth for Change, Women for Democracy (The Street in Ours), El Tagamu Party and others.

The demonstration was scheduled at 10:00 am in front of the Supreme Court building in 26th of July str., Downtown Cairo. The demonstrators were not allowed together in front of the court and had to start at different places in Downtown. In less than 15 minutes security forces in civilian clothes attacked demonstrators in different places (Ramsis, Talaat Harb, and Adly streets) simultaneously many of them were beaten until bleeding and carried into minibuses and security-armored cars.

The violence targeted journalists as well. Al-Jazeera channel cameraman was severely beaten and his tape confiscated by security officers in civilian clothes.

Notorious State Security officers Waleed El-Dousqi and Atef El-Husseiny were supervising the beating up of demonstrators.
The above-mentioned Mohammed Abdel Qodous is a well-known left-leaning Muslim Brother and columnist, perhaps one of the most prominent member of the organization to be arrested thus far.

Another leftist activist sends in this update:
Dear Friend,

Pro-democracy demonstrations in solidarity with two Egyptian judges facing disciplinary hearings on Thursday morning were forcefully put down and dispersed in downtown Cairo.

Over 10,000 central security forces, plain clothed thugs, and police officers prevented 2,000 activists from the Moslem Brotherhood, Kifaya , and others from demonstrating.

At least 237 activists, most of them from the Moslem Brotherhood, were beaten and arrested. The number of arrests could be much higher – the Brotherhood has claimed that 300 of its members were arrested.

Smaller demonstrations were also organized in Alexandria and Assiut today. Six were arrested in Alexandria while four were reportedly arrested in Assiut. The Brotherhood says that another twelve of its members were arrested in Al Mansura.

Some activists were beaten and clubbed to the extent that they were bleeding profusely as they were dragged away in armored cars.

Journalists attempting to cover the demonstrations were harassed by security forces and prevented from reporting the events.

Al Jazeera's cameraman was seriously beaten and had his camera confiscated while a photographer from Reuters had his camera broken. Several reporters and photographers from other news agencies also reported that they were beaten.

A number of streets in downtown Cairo, including Ramsis, Abdel Khaleq Tharwat, and the 26th of July, were sealed off as were the Judges' Club, the Lawyers' and Journalists' Syndicates. Ironically enough all the activists detained since April 24 have been charged with obstructing traffic, along with six other similarly absurd charges.

All demonstrations have been banned since the renewal of the emergency law on April 29 and anyone publicly criticizing Hosni Mubarak is immediately arrested – although one way to avoid arrest is to chant "Yaskot Yaskot Lutfi Mubarak!"

It is not only demonstrations that are being banned. On Wednesday night, May 10, a musical performance in Talaat Harb Square, organized by the songwriter/poet Ahmad Fuad Negm, was spoiled when hundreds of security forces shoved and beat everybody away from the square. Negm himself was threatened with arrest.

Meanwhile the two judges, Mahmoud el Mekki and Hisham el Bastawisi, facing disciplinary hearings were prevented from entering the courtroom with their accompanying delegation of judges and lawyers today.

As such "they refused to enter the courtroom without their defense team " said Mahmoud Al Askalani, the media spokesman for Cairo's Judges' Club. Askalani added that "1,000 members of the security forces were present in the courtroom, which is a blatantly illegal act, and the first of its kind in Egypt's judicial history."

What makes this act more agitating is the fact that all the detainees arrested since April 24 have been charged with illegal assembly – yet the ministry of interior conducts its own illegal assemblies wherever it wants. Hypocritical thugs!

Mekki and Bastawisi have been stripped of their immunity and are facing disciplinary hearings for their role in leaking reports to the media regarding electoral violations and vote rigging perpetrated during the parliamentary elections of October-December 2005. The Mubarak regime is clearly terrified by the transparency and accountability that Egypt's judges are promoting.

We now have a total of at least 346 activists in detention for demonstrating in support of Egypt's judges.

Hey Pharaoh, let my people go!

[name removed]

PS - I would like to express my gratitude for all those working for the release of the detainees -including Faisal and Salma with their blogs, Shehab & company for their demonstrations and petitions at the Egyptian consulate in New York, Rime & company for their protest action in Chicago, and those in Washington DC, Athens, and London. Respect to all those who are helping out here in Egypt and abroad.
Media coverage at CNN, SAPA (which cites security sources as saying there were 10,000 troops ad 237 demonstrators arrested) and AFP, while Reuters Cairo Bureau Chief Jonathan Wright (whom I saw in a heated altercation with a security officer over someone being violently beaten) writes that journalists were among those arrested:

CAIRO (Reuters) - Egyptian security forces beat activists and arrested journalists in Cairo on Thursday during protests in support of judges facing a disciplinary committee for criticizing election abuses last year.

Activists organized at least three separate demonstrations in central Cairo but in each case plainclothes security men moved in, beating and detaining selected protesters.

Thousands of riot police, armed with sticks and shields, sealed off main streets near the High Court, disrupting traffic in the heart of the capital.

One of the largest protests was by some 300 members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the country's largest opposition group.

The protesters gathered quietly around the corner from the court to escape the attention of security forces and then began chanting "Judges, judges, save us from the tyrants!"

They marched for some 15 minutes before teams of plainclothes security attacked the leaders, pulling them to the pavement and beating them with fists.

One activist was held against a wall and beaten until his face bled heavily. At least a dozen were arrested.

Plainclothes policemen also detained at least six journalists covering the protest, a Reuters witness said.

They dragged away cameramen from news organizations including Reuters and Al Jazeera television and confiscated their cameras. An Al Jazeera cameraman was badly beaten.

Demonstrators dispersed when the security forces began their crackdown. Some managed to regroup to continue chanting.

The demonstrators included supporters of the opposition Muslim Brotherhood and secular activists. "Down, down with Hosni Mubarak," they chanted, in reference to Egypt's president.
I think from Jonathan's account a few of the others my original count of around 300 Muslim Brothers in the first demo (a small fraction of what they are able to mobilize) was more or less right. But there were many sympathizers and demos around the country, including at Cairo University on the other side of town, in Alexandria and possibly other towns. So it's hard to judge the full number of the activists who were out on the streets this morning.