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In Morsi’s Egypt, violence and suspicion

Some worry the assassination of a prominent opposition activist in Tunisia is a harbinger of things to come for Egypt.

CAIRO, Egypt ­— Egypt’s liberal activists say they are haunted by the recent assassination of a prominent opposition figure in nearby Tunisia — and are worried a similar slaying could happen here, too.

Police have increased security around the homes of liberal political figures, after hardline clerics publicly declared their murders justifiable under their interpretation of Islamic law last week.

Young secular activists say they also believe they are targeted by government security forces for detention, torture, and even assassination as weeks of violent protests have challenged the rule of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi.

Their fears were given precedence last week when gunmen assassinated Chokri Belaid, a prominent human rights activist and government critic in Tunisia, the country that inspired Egypt’s revolution and the Arab Spring.

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The killing of Belaid was preceded by a similar environment of intense division between extreme Islamists — who have drowned out a predominantly moderate population ­— and an old guard of secular activists.

Security forces in both countries, meanwhile, continue to routinely torture political activists, and have failed to maintain public order in the wake of the two nations’ 2011 uprisings.

“It can happen anywhere,” Cairo-based writer and political analyst Hisham Kassem said about the possibility of political killings. “Anyone can take the initiative and choose to attack. This is a time of unrest and anything can happen.”

Egypt’s most recent turmoil began Monday, the second anniversary of President Hosni Mubarak’s departure. Anti-government activists launched a wave of protests that prompted heavy security crackdowns and violent clashes, roiling Morsi’s 7-month-old presidency.

Protesters and opposition forces say the leader — a former Muslim Brotherhood official — lost his legitimacy in November, when he issued a decree placing his edicts above the law, and presided over the passing of a controversial constitution. They say protests and attacks on government buildings are justified.

But Morsi’s supporters are fighting back. One cleric, Mahmoud Shaaban, said on Egypt’s Al Hafez channel earlier this month that leaders of the National Salvation Front (NSF), the largest opposition group, should have their “necks cut” for challenging the democratic authority of an elected leader.

Shaaban quoted a hadith, or saying of the Muslim Prophet Mohamed, to back-up his judgment, singling out NSF leaders Mohamed ElBaradei and Hamdeen Sabbahi as the primary culprits.

“Shaaban simply asked how would Sharia [Islamic law] deal with these people in the opposition who call for violence,” Al Sayed Abdel Maqsoud Askar, a Brotherhood leader in the Nile Delta province of Gharbeya, said in defense of Shaaban’s remarks. “But the man did nothing wrong.”

Egypt’s presidential office and a number of Islamists and other Brotherhood members have condemned the edicts legitimizing the slaying of opposition leaders. The prosecutor-general, in fact, ordered the arrest of Shaaban on Monday.

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Egypt’s revolutionary youth say they cannot prove that the Brotherhood, which also commands the upper house of parliament, has initiated the campaign of detentions and extrajudicial kidnappings they say are plaguing their ranks.

But those same activists say the Brotherhood-led government and its supporters, like the hardline clerics, are enabling a climate of either state-sponsored or vigilante violence against the opposition, even if the protesters themselves have assaulted police and state institutions in recent weeks.

“[The Brotherhood] is allowing the interior ministry to act the same way it did during Mubarak and worse,” said Amal Sharaf, a founding member of the April 6 Movement, whose 2008 protests laid the foundations for the uprising three years later. “Morsi came out and declared that he would deal with ‘non-peaceful’ protesters aggressively and he is doing that. Nothing has changed — it’s all becoming worse.”

There is much debate among analysts and political observers over the level of control Morsi and his cabinet actually have over the interior ministry, which forms the backbone of the security forces arresting and beating protesters. The same discussion is taking place in Tunisia, where the Islamist movement Ennahda controls the government but has so far failed to reform Tunisia’s own security forces.

The police in Egypt have long brutalized and cracked down on political dissent, and may be operating on its own. For their part, the Brotherhood and other Islamists vehemently deny any role in punishing protesters, despite chiding them for their violent demonstrations.

“A lot of these people claim to be activists, and yet they brandish guns and knives, which provoke the police,” said Mohamed Abu Taweb, secretary-general of the prominent Salafi Al Nour Party in Fayoum province. “They start the violence with their own acts.”

But protesters point to a spate of recent attacks in which either demonstrators or opposition members have disappeared from Egyptian cities, only to show up later in hospitals or on the streets, beaten and bloodied.

Last week, Mohamed Al Guindy, a member of the Popular Current, one of the largest opposition groups, died from a skull fracture in a Cairo hospital after disappearing from the area near Cairo’s Tahrir Square four days before. His friends and family say his body bore clear marks of torture, but government officials and Brotherhood leaders claim Al Guindy was killed in a car accident.

Omar Morsi, the founder of an anti-Brotherhood Facebook page called “MolotovCola,” disappeared from a protest on Jan. 27. He later turned up comatose at another Cairo hospital with a shotgun pellet lodged in his head, according to the Associated Press.

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In the restive pro-labor town of Mahalla, also in Gharbeya province, opposition activist Mohamed Gamal was found stripped and beaten with his hands and feet tied in a pile of trash. Also a member of the Popular Current, he told local media that unknown assailants kidnapped him off the street after he organized anti-government protests.

The fear is so great that some activists say they guard the hospital rooms of their injured colleagues to ensure no one slips in to harm them further.

“When it seemed like Mohamed [Al Guindy] was improving, I didn’t want the news to spread because I was afraid people would find out and try to kill him in the hospital,” said Ahmed Al Gamal, a friend of the slain activist.

He didn’t say who “they” were, but insists Al Guindy was detained and tortured at a police compound in Cairo for his work supporting anti-government sit-ins in Tahrir Square and outside the presidential palace.

“I don’t know that the Brotherhood played a direct role in Mohamed’s death. But without Mohamed, the sit-ins [against Morsi] at the palace and Tahrir would never have lasted as long as they did,” Al Gamal said. “I think the Brotherhood is worried about the opposition youth — we are moving forward, making trouble and organizing protests against them.”

Heba Habib contributed reporting.