In the two months since Egyptian authorities started rounding up supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi, a repressive regime has emerged here that appears to be far worse than the one political activists thought they’d ended when they pushed Hosni Mubarak from office two and a half years ago.
Egyptians caught in the roundup have told McClatchy they were tortured while awaiting charges. Islamist leaders claim that the government is rounding up family members in the night as leverage against them. Lawyers tasked with representing arrested Morsi supporters often are arrested when they go to be with their clients during prison interrogations. Once again, civilians are facing their charges in military courts.
“I saw torture chambers that made me wish they would shoot my husband dead,” said one woman who was arrested the same day her husband also was seized. “I would rather see him, the father of three children, dead than tortured,” she recounted in a phone interview, her voice still shaking 10 days after her two-week detention.
The woman, who asked not to be identified for fear she’d be arrested again, said she was mistreated while in custody but hadn’t been tortured. Her account matches that of other prisoners, who say they’ve gone on hunger strikes to protest the crowded conditions and refusals to let them see their lawyers.
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Not just Morsi supporters have been arrested. A growing number of journalists and human rights advocates also have been detained, leaving fewer eyes to document what’s happening.
Ahmed Helmi, a human rights lawyer who represents many of those arrested, estimated that as many as 10,000 people have been arrested since the military deposed Morsi on July 3. That’s far more than human right groups’ estimates of 3,000. Diplomatic officials told McClatchy the number could be 5,000.
McClatchy couldn’t reach Hany Abdel Latif, a spokesman for the Ministry of Interior. He told the Reuters news agency Tuesday that prisoners are receiving adequate treatment and medical care. “The situation is normal,” he was quoted as saying.
The government has refused to say how many people have been arrested or who they are. That’s consistent with its silence on the whereabouts of the toppled Morsi, who hasn’t been since he was forced from office.
“What’s going on now is worse than Mubarak’s times,” Helmi said. “There were raids during Mubarak’s times, but never like this. The state security is back, with all its power. The arrests are very random. They want to put their hands on certain people and then tailor charges for them.”
Helmi, who’s been a lawyer for 23 years and defended jailed Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Badie in 2000 when Badie was charged with being a member of an illegal group, said he was starting to see old faces re-emerge who’d all but disappeared after Mubarak’s ouster. “All the state security officers who were forced to retire after January 25th are all back to their old jobs,” Helmi said, referring to the date in 2011 when demonstrations against Mubarak began.
The development is a disappointment to the activists whose 18 days of street demonstrations led to Mubarak’s resignation. But there’s little outrage among average Egyptians, who are exhausted by two years of instability and who blame Morsi’s supporters for the latest volatility. And every day the government repeats its charges that Morsi supporters are terrorists as it flexes an increasingly heavy hand.
Muslim Brotherhood family members said they were being targeted as leverage. Among them was Saad el Shater, the son of Khairat el Shater, a wealthy businessman and the Brotherhood’s deputy leader. Saad el Shater, a 23-year-old recent university graduate, was arrested earlier this month after police stormed his house around 1 a.m., weeks after his father’s arrest.
Saad el Shater was charged with inciting violence, but his family said the charges were leverage against his father.
“I tried to stop them. I stood at the door and asked, ‘Why are you taking him?’ ” said Azza Tawfik, Saad’s mother. “They didn’t show me an arrest warrant. They didn’t show me anything. They were masked.”
The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information has said that authorities also have misused the recently reinstated emergency law to arrest journalists amid a government campaign to brand some news outlets, most notably the Arabic satellite channel Al Jazeera, as Brotherhood supporters. Details are difficult to come by, but one of the most prominent recent arrests was of Ahmed Abu Durra, a journalist who covered the restive Sinai for the newspaper Al Masry al Youm and was a freelance reporter for several Western news organizations, including McClatchy. He was charged with inciting violence and spreading misinformation.
Lawyers and relative of arrested people say prison conditions are intolerable. In Fayoum province, about 80 miles southwest of Cairo, where Morsi recorded his greatest margin of victory when he won the presidency last year, at least 52 prisoners are refusing to eat to protest their treatment, lawyers and relatives say.
Moaz Sayyed, 25, a doctor whose father, Sayyed Heikal, 58, is in Fayoum’s prison hospital, said his father had told him that at least 21 prisoners were in a cell designed for six, prison food was inedible and prisoners were being denied their medicine.
“They are only allowed to leave the cell during visits, which rarely happens,” Sayyed said.
He said he’d visited a friend, Hamza Mohsen, 24, on Thursday and found him suffering from a broken arm, which Mohsen said happened when he was arrested.
“He hasn’t seen a doctor,” Sayyed said.