Egypts post-revolution will not be televised

The media caravan has moved on and Egypt is yesterday’s news. Which is precisely why it’s so important to focus on what’s actually happening now that former president Hosni Mubarak and others are under arrest and the country has supposedly turned a corner once and for all.

How have things actually changed?

Well, if you ask some of the people who are still turning out in Tahrir Square you might get the answer: they haven’t.

Certainly the army has been cracking down on small demonstrations there with alarming violence. For example on 9 April soldiers used live ammunition, rubber bullets, tear gas, electric batons and sticks to break up a peaceful demonstration in the square. Two people were killed, many more were injured and at least 21 people were detained. A month earlier the army also violently cleared Tahrir Square of demonstrators and women protesters told Amnesty that they were beaten, subjected to electric shocks, strip-searched and forced to submit to “virginity checks” and threatened with prostitution charges.

These appalling incidents don’t fit an Egypt “narrative” which many observers have come to accept as almost inevitable – Mubarak repression > Arab Spring revolution > post-revolutionary move to democracy and human rights.

But this was never going to be a smooth ride. On the one hand the human cost of the Egyptian uprising has been huge and truly terrible: 840 people were killed by the security forces and nearly 6,500 (6,467) were injured, according to the Egyptian Ministry of Health. On the other, as Eric Margolis makes clear, Egypt has a kind of “deep state” run by a very powerful military-industrial complex awash with US military aid money.

Amnesty UK director Kate Allen (currently in Cairo assessing how things are changing, especially in terms of women’s rights) told me earlier this week that in Tahrir Square there are still banners up declaring “The army and the people are one”. The painful irony of this if you’ve just been beaten up by a bunch of soldiers in the square hardly needs spelling out.

Meanwhile, if the army is Egypt’s deep state you could say that administrative detention is the country’s deep form of repression. Under Emergency Law powers in force since 1981, the authorities have been imprisoning political opponents, human rights activists, alleged terrorists, Islamists and others without going through all the bother of putting them on trial. In the final years of Mubarak’s ill-starred rule a staggering 10,000 people were thought to have be held in administrative detention, some for as long as 20 years. Some – probably many – of these were also tortured. The human misery caused by this deep repression has been colossal. There need to be thorough investigations into who did the torturing and who ignored court orders for prisoner releases (another issue is Egypt’s role as a “go-to torturer” in the “war on terror”: this also needs thoroughly unearthing).

For more detail, see Amnesty’s new report on administrative detention here.

Nothing is inevitable in Egypt, neither the growth of a human rights culture nor a backward swing to more repression. Recent moves by the interim rulers in the Egyptian Cabinet certainly don’t inspire confidence (especially proposals for a law that will criminalise protests and strikes) but a strong turnout and reformist vote in a recent referendum (albeit a flawed one) augers somewhat better.

For me though things are looking worrying. There’s a danger that things are already slipping backwards in Egypt and with the media caravan parked elsewhere there are few journalists to report the slow rewind to repression and dashed hopes. To pillage Gil Scott-Heron’s famous song title one more time – in Egypt the fear is that the post-revolution will not be televised.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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