As Mubarak Recedes, Egypt's Police State Persists

  • Share
  • Read Later
Asmaa Waguih / Reuters

Vice President Omar Suleiman, center, meets with representatives of Egypt's political parties in Cairo on Feb. 6, 2011

Life outside Tahrir Square regained a semblance of normalcy on Sunday. Traffic reached its notorious point of gridlock on some of Cairo's major roadways. Many banks, fast-food restaurants and clothing stores opened their doors for the first time in over a week. And newspaper sellers spread their goods out on the sidewalks.

Behind closed doors, the regime offered its latest in a series of concessions. For the first time, after decades of harsh repression, Vice President Omar Suleiman sat down at the negotiating table with the banned Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest opposition group, as well as other members of the opposition and youth activists, the Vice President's office said.

Indeed, the past week has seen a flurry of changes for a regime typically characterized as stagnant by its many critics. As the Obama Administration has steadily applied the pressure, nudging Hosni Mubarak toward a smooth transition, and hundreds of thousands have continued to mass in Cairo's Tahrir Square, the 82-year-old Egyptian President has responded. He appointed new heads of Cabinet, designated his intelligence chief Suleiman to the role of Vice President, promised that neither he nor his son would run in the September presidential race and reshuffled the leaders of his ruling party. On Sunday, Suleiman's office said that attendees at the negotiating table had reached a "consensus" promising to form a committee to study and propose constitutional amendments, the release of prisoners of conscience and an eventual lifting of Egypt's state of emergency, among other things.

But for many of the demonstrators in Tahrir Square — and, indeed, many outside the wire as well — the primary demand has yet to be met: Mubarak remains in power. And the changes he has enacted signify little more than a power-saving cosmetic adjustment within a single, rigid system. "Everything that I've seen so far is cosmetic — just to make the face look better," says Omar Rabie, an MIT-educated architect who was hospitalized with his brother after the two were severely beaten by police on Jan. 25.

Rabie agrees, however, that negotiations are a promising step. He sees a positive change in the psychology of the Egyptians around him and believes the activists will be open to compromise once Mubarak falls.

But what about the repressive police state that sent the young Alexandria businessman Khaled Said to the grave and gave thousands their motivation to protest? Is Egypt leaving its dark side behind too? On that count, Rabie and many others say they're not sure.

The Rabie brothers were intercepted by secret police at the hospital and shackled to their bed for days as Egypt's protests got under way. "They told us they were planning to send us for interrogation and torture in a camp," he says, but good connections led to their release. Few are yet convinced that the police state has changed its ways. "People in Tahrir are afraid of leaving Tahrir before this ends because they have a feeling that there will be revenge," he says of the people he has spoken to. "They are afraid that things will get worse."

Indeed, it may be too soon to guess otherwise. For one thing, Suleiman didn't specify when or under what conditions the state of emergency, which has blanketed the country in broadly legalized repression for 30 years, would be lifted. The statement said the move would occur "in accordance with security conditions and in the event of an end to the security threat to the community." Essentially, that's what the regime has always said.

The feared police force, as well as its plainclothes state-security counterparts, is back on the job. Police donned their traffic vests on Sunday, chatted casually outside the major banks and took up position alongside the occasional tank unit stationed on strategic corners. Graffiti along a long yellow wall of Nile Street in the middle-class Dokki neighborhood that once read "The people want the fall of the regime" has been crossed out. Next to it, an affirmative "Yes to Mubarak" is now scrawled.

Tawfiq Mahmoud, a cabdriver from the Nile-side slum of Imbaba, is optimistic. "What happened with the police after January 25 was a dark spot in the history of the Interior Ministry," he says. "There are changes because of that. But only God knows. There is a new Interior Minister now and we still haven't seen anything from him. It's too new to tell."

One bad sign, the Tahrir activists argue, is that Suleiman, who has largely taken over for Mubarak, is old news. Chants in the square continue to focus on the removal of Mubarak, but many say they are unwilling to tolerate a President Suleiman either. "Not just Mubarak," says one protester, Mohamed Abdo. "The whole system."

The longtime intelligence chief is very much part of the system. Suleiman, along with Egypt's Defense Minister, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, and the chief of staff of Egypt's armed forces, Lieut. General Sami Hafez Enan, rank among Mubarak's most trusted allies.

For years, Suleiman oversaw the state's notoriously shady and abusive intelligence apparatus, maintaining a hard line on Islamists and working closely with the Americans and Israelis on issues of counterterrorism. He was the U.S.'s point man for renditions, including that of Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi — the man who made false allegations about Saddam Hussein's ties to al-Qaeda while being tortured by the Egyptians.

So what has changed? After disaster hit Tahrir Square last Wednesday, when armed mobs of plainclothes police and Mubarak loyalists attacked the demonstrators with knives, stones and Molotov cocktails, the regime seems to have determined that whoever paid for or allowed that to happen had the wrong idea. The government has opened an investigation into the disappearance of the police from the streets on the first Friday night of the uprising. And the sacked Interior Minister Habib al-Adly, who has been banned from travel and has had his assets frozen, is up for a possible indictment. The government has also promised to protect the rights of protesters and has denied reports that Egyptian forces were under order to arrest journalists last week.

But dozens of journalists and activists were attacked and arrested in the final days of last week anyway. State security raided the office of the Muslim Brotherhood's website. And going into the weekend, reports by the Committee to Protect Journalists and human-rights groups indicated that security forces showed no sign of letting up. Military police raided the office of the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, a local human-rights organization, on Friday, arresting 35 human-rights activists and journalists. "This doesn't seem to be only initiatives by the pro-Mubarak crowd, but rather the state at large," says Joe Stork, the deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa Division. "On the one hand, people like al-Adly are in detention and under indictment soon. But on the other hand, we have activists being picked up for no reason other than them being activists. So I wouldn't say it's a very friendly disposition on the part of authorities toward the human-rights field."

Despite promising a freer press on Sunday, Suleiman also reiterated the government's earlier allegations that foreign elements were involved in stoking the unrest — a claim that many activists and journalists have said is tantamount to sanctioning violence against foreigners.

Even as the government broadcast its latest policy shift on Sunday, two al-Jazeera correspondents were detained by the Egyptian military, and Lina Attalah, the managing editor of independent daily Al-Masry Al-Youm, says that plainclothes police paid a visit to one of her foreign reporters at home. "We are worried at this point," she says. "Especially because it's very obvious that besides the gesture of talking about concessions publicly by the regime, you can still find traditional security tactics being implemented and enforced."

Indeed, Mubarak may be more or less finished, as the protesters victoriously claim, or sidelined, as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently pointed out, but his police state — and the broader system he spent decades building — may still be up to the test. Mohamed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood spokesman who attended the negotiations on Sunday, is cautious about what to expect next from the regime that spent decades arresting his colleagues. The police are back, he acknowledges, but are they committed to human rights? "It's not clear yet, but they should be," he says. "They better be. Pray for us."