Egyptians say the mood is different now. Gone is the call of the revolution demanding justice for the brutal torture and killing of a young man and an end to the police abuse his case exemplified. In its place is a weary, national shrug toward brutal attacks, now that they’re directed against the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters. There is little popular demand for justice and little prospect for accountability. If Egypt’s military-backed government can get away with killing more than 1,000 protesters in broad daylight in 2013, what has really changed since the days of Hosni Mubarak?
Since the military overthrow of President Mohammed Morsi, the only democratically elected leader in Egyptian history, security forces have launched a campaign of persecution against the Muslim Brotherhood, with mass killings of protesters, dragnet arrests of its supporters, and attempts to ban the Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice Party.
Officials have said they would establish a fact-finding commission to investigate the Aug. 14 massacre of more than 1,000 protesters at the Rabaa al Adawiya mosque and two incidents in July in which security forces killed scores of protesters after Morsi’s overthrow. But no commission has been formed. Human Rights Watch investigations into these killings concluded that government forces used excessive lethal force to disperse the protests, indiscriminately firing at protesters.
Egypt’s track record on accountability for the slayings of protesters since the revolution has been dismal. Even investigations into the deaths of protesters at the hands of Mubarak’s forces, at a time when accountability was a national rallying cry, resulted in only slap-on-the-wrist sentences for a few low-level police officers. There has been no comprehensive public accounting of the killings under the military authorities. With little popular pressure demanding justice for pro-Muslim Brotherhood protesters killed this year, it’s hard to imagine that the government has any serious intention of punishing security officers, much less senior officials.
In its campaign to bring the Muslim Brotherhood to heel, the authorities have arrested thousands of rank-and-file Brotherhood supporters on a laundry list of charges. In a startling example of selective prosecution, the authorities are charging Morsi and other senior Brotherhood officials with inciting torture and murder at an anti-Morsi protest last year at which 11 protesters died, but they have made no arrests of anyone charged with these killings.
The military authorities have brazenly “disappeared” five key Morsi advisers, detaining them in secret places without charge for more than five months, though the government charged and transferred them to Tora prison last week. Few voices besides Brotherhood partisans are demanding, at minimum, due process for the detainees.
And in November, a court convicted 21 women and girls for participating in pro-Morsi protests, with the women sentenced to 11 years in prison and the girls to detention until they’re 18. An appeals court reduced the sentence, but the chilling message to protesters remains. Challenges by human-rights organizations to government abuses are met with scorn.
Brotherhood officials and family members whom Human Rights Watch has met with in Cairo have focused not on politics or strategy but on a desperate appeal for the well-being and survival of their colleagues and loved ones. Relatives lucky enough to have prison visits tell of the appalling conditions the detainees face.
Many senior Brotherhood figures are held in solitary confinement and report that they are sleeping on the floor in dank cells and are forced to defecate in holes in their cells. They say that food, water and electricity are extremely limited and that they’re unable to get needed medicines. Prosecutors have renewed pretrial detentions en masse, with no real opportunity to challenge the detentions.
While Egyptian diplomats and spokesmen speak of reconciliation and inclusiveness, the government is relentlessly working to dismantle the Muslim Brotherhood as a political force. The Ministry of Social Solidarity dissolved the Brotherhood as a nongovernmental organization; a court ordered its assets frozen based on vague allegations of the organization’s links to violence, and the State Commissioners Authority has recommended the dissolution of its Freedom and Justice Party.
In this context, it’s startling to hear Secretary of State John Kerry lauding Egypt’s new rulers for “restoring democracy” while charging the Brotherhood with “stealing the revolution.” Such shameless cajoling does nothing to rein in the military’s heavy-handed abuses, much less move Egypt in a democratic direction. As President Obama has said, it’s hard to have a political dialogue when the opposition is in jail.
A Palestinian friend described the situation in Egypt today as proof that Egyptians “aren’t opposed to oppression; they’re OK with it as long as they’re not the ones being oppressed.” Egypt’s test today is to prove him wrong.
Sarah Leah Whitson is the Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. She wrote this article for the Los Angeles Times.