Stomping on Democracy in Egypt

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Egyptian plainclothes police clash with protesters during a demonstration in Cairo today.

For a very brief moment in downtown Cairo Thursday, there seemed to be a small flowering of democracy, the kind of popular expression of will that the Bush Administration has declared to be a central part of its Middle East agenda. Hundreds of marchers wound through the capital's traffic-gnarled streets pumping their fists and chanting, "O freedom, where are you, where are you? See, [President] Hosni Mubarak stands between me and you!" as car horns honked in cheerful camaraderie.

But then suddenly, only 15 minutes into the demonstration, screams erupted and people began running in every direction in panic. State security had arrived, and before long it was clear that Egypt's authoritarian government still had the upper hand in its year-long struggle with democracy activists.

TIME witnessed plainclothes thugs, who were apparently taking orders from police, attack the fleeing protestors with fists and truncheons. One woman was thrown to the ground, kicked and punched as she knelt on her hands and knees. Journalists also were targeted, especially those with cameras. At least six journalists were detained briefly, and several were beaten, including Reuters and Al Jazeera cameramen.

The government had fully expected such a clash. More than 10,000 black-clad riot police had sealed off entire areas of the city in an attempt to prevent demonstrators from expressing their support for two pro-reform judges who were scheduled to appear in front of a disciplinary hearing that morning. The judges, Mahmoud Mekky and Hesham El Bastawissi, face possible expulsion from the bench after calling for the independence of Egypt's judiciary and protesting ballot fraud during last year's parliamentary elections. Their case is fast becoming a cause celebre in Egypt, where President Hosni Mubarak, 78, is facing growing domestic and international pressure to democratize.

Muslim Brotherhood officials, who organized the protest along with secular activists, told TIME at least 350 of their supporters had been arrested in three separate demonstrations in Cairo Thursday. They join scores of other activists detained in the last several weeks at similar rallies. For their part, judges Mekky and Bastawissi refused to enter the courthouse in protest. Unable to proceed without them, the hearing has been postponed until next Thursday.

"This is not a trial; it's a war," El Bastawissi told TIME by telephone from inside the Judges Club, where he was holed up with sympathetic fellow judges. "Every time, the violence gets worse than the time before. You can't have a hearing under these conditions." El Bastawissi said he, Mekky and thousands of other judges will not return to court until the government releases those who were arrested.

At the scene of the protest, human rights activist Hossam Bahgat watched as police played a brutal cat-and-mouse game with remaining demonstrators, chasing them down alleyways and cornering them against barricades. "I saw some of them being carried into police trucks while their noses and mouths were bleeding," said Bahgat, the director of the Egyptian Initiative for Human Rights. "As soon as the judges arrived to offer the reform movement the moral leadership it direly needed, the government realized how dangerous these government demonstrations could be," Bahgat said.

On a nearby street corner, Ahmed Abdul Aziz, a young doctor, said he had come to show his support for the judges, but was chased away and beaten by plainclothes state security forces. "They don't want anyone to open his mouth at all, or demand constitutional rights on behalf of the people," said a white-faced Abdul Aziz. "If the judges, who are the highest authority, are being targeted, then it's over. Who else is there?"

As he spoke to TIME, standing on the sidewalk near the courthouse, the interview was interrupted by screaming. Five feet away, a young American journalist from Knight Ridder had attracted the attention of security forces by taking photographs. Five or six of them jumped on her and began grabbing for her camera, hitting her and reaching down her shirt as she stood pinned against a parked car.

Abdul Aziz, journalists and other bystanders rushed to her aid, shouting at the thugs and trying to extract the woman. "Shame on you!" they yelled in a furious chorus of English and Arabic. "Are you animals?" The men backed off grudgingly, and the shaken reporter was ushered back to the relative security of the sidewalk."Cowards," spat Abdul Aziz as he walked away.

Hanafy Mohammad Abdel Salam, a protester who was beaten in the day's chaos, lamented the situation. "I am 60 years old and retired," Abdel Salam said, his voice breaking. "I have lived 60 years without freedom, and my children, they have smelled only a whiff of freedom." A silent crowd began to gather, listening intently. A few of the plainclothes thugs also closed in, but Abdel Salam ignored them. "I can see that these judges are good people," he said. "We need to stand with them, to let them know that the people are not yet dead, that there are still people who will speak out. I will help them even if I die." With passions like that being stirred, the battle for democracy in Egypt shows no signs of abating.